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S.C. State might use tuition, state and lottery funds for Clyburn building

South Carolina State University is considering siphoning $1.6 million from tuition, state appropriations and the lottery for construction of the troubled and controversial James E. Clyburn University Transportation Center.

The university’s Board of Trustees approved the expense Thursday as part of a tentative 2012-2013 operating budget at a retreat in Orangeburg. Only board member Maurice Washington was opposed. But acting board Chairman John Corbitt said the board plans to have another discussion on the matter. “No firm decisions have been made,” he said.

The operating budget, otherwise known as the education and general fund budget, largely is composed of money from student tuition, state appropriations and the South Carolina Education Lottery.

The money would be used for the Emily E. Clyburn Archives, the second of two buildings in the first phase of the planned transportation complex.

Washington said he was appalled that the rest of the board would consider the expense. That money could be used for student scholarships at the state’s only public historically black university, he said. About 90 percent of the school’s students come from families with incomes so low they are eligible for federal aid. “Some trustees are willing to build this center even if it takes student money to do so,” Washington said.

The $1.6 million would go toward the required $3 million in “matching funds,” Washington said. The school has $24 million in federal money available for the first phase of the transportation center. But it needs to provide some money from private, state or other sources before it can access most of that federal money.

The transportation center came under fire in 2010 after The Post and Courier reported that more than $50 million had flowed to the center — about half for a new building and half for transportation research and education programs — but the site for the new building was vacant, no transportation research was under way, and it had lost its federal designation.

The report prompted a bipartisan group of state legislators to call for an investigation by their watchdog group, the Legislative Audit Council.

The audit council’s report, which was released in June 2011, cited severe management problems. And it estimated that the transportation complex likely would cost about $107 million. The university had no viable plan for raising the rest.

State Sen. Robert Ford, D-Charleston, who launched the call for the audit council investigation, said he is going to fight the school’s efforts to spend $1.6 million on the center. He worked to bring lottery money to the state’s historically black schools, he said, and that money is intended to help students, not finance buildings to honor U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, assistant Democratic leader.

“That’s a disgrace,” Ford said. “A building with Clyburn’s name and his wife’s name on it isn’t going to do anything for students.”

Clyburn, a graduate of S.C. State, was responsible for bringing millions in federal money to the university for the transportation center. He has said his goal was to give the school a unique mission among the state’s higher education institutions.

But Ford questioned Clyburn’s motives. “The only time he wants to bring money to S.C. State is if they put his name on it,” Ford said.

University officials have said that the first phase of the transportation complex would consist of two buildings. S.C. State finished the first $4.8 million building in December. That building includes a chiller plant, three automotive research bays and a fourth bay for cleaning and preparing vehicles. About $2 million of the money went toward the chiller plant, which will cool the entire complex, excluding the one building that’s complete. The first building it will cool is an archives building.

S.C. State’s center became one of dozens of University Transportation Centers in 1998, but the U.S. Department of Transportation cut off funding in 2006, and has not recognized it as a designated center since 2009.

School leaders applied for another USDOT grant, hoping to regain the designation, but they learned earlier this year that they had not been selected to receive one.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or on Twitter @dianeknich.

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