This week, state Rep. Jim Merrill managed the political equivalent of rolling a live grenade into a crowded room.
His higher education budget subcommittee voted to close the doors at South Carolina State University for at least a year.
See, the college is millions of dollars in debt and trying to use the Legislature like an ATM. Last May, the Budget and Control Board approved a $6 million loan and in December the Joint Bond Review Committee approved $12 million for the school.
School officials came back recently and said they need more. But when lawmakers asked how the school was going to repay these loans and balance its budget, the answer was a casual “we’ll get back to you on that.”
This went past ridiculous a long time ago.
Now, no one expects the Legislature to actually shutter S.C. State — the political implications of a Republican-dominated Legislature closing a historically black university, a land grant college, are too ugly.
But people shouldn’t be so quick to skewer Merrill. He gave S.C. State a wake-up call it should have gotten long ago.
So how did the school’s board of trustees react?
On Thursday, they suggested spending more money — and blamed the media for their woes.
S.C. State officials say they need to hire a consultant to reverse their declining enrollment, which of course has been caused by negative news reporting.
Maybe they’re right. Here’s a headline with positive spin for them:
“S.C. State lost slightly less money than Bernie Madoff clients last year!”
That’s about the best they can hope for when their institution “misplaces” millions of state and federal dollars, gets entangled in corruption probes and has a revolving door in the administration building.
Oh, and doesn’t pay its bills.
There has been a considerable amount of goodwill for S.C. State over the years. And the school has squandered it by acting as if this chronic mismanagement is everyone else’s problem.
When college officials came before Merrill’s committee, they seemed to have no plan for dealing with the fiscal crisis.
“We asked them if they had considered reducing the number of classes offered. They said that’s off the table,” Merrill says. “Reducing faculty — off the table. Reducing athletics like the College of Charleston did — off the table. Well, what is on the table? The time to turn a blind eye is over.”
Just to prove this is not a partisan, or racial, thing, the Legislative Black Caucus made the historic move of publicly giving S.C. State President Thomas Elzey a vote of no-confidence.
That’s a pretty broad hint, folks.
The state has not been kind to higher education in the past decade.
The Legislature has slashed funding to all colleges by nearly half since 2007. S.C. State has fared worse than most by a few percentages points.
Still, the school gets twice as much funding per student as the College of Charleston and a bit more than the University of South Carolina. That is because S.C. State has lost nearly 30 percent of its students in the past decade.
Some might think a responsible institution in such dire straits would scale back on its costs. But it’s much easier to blame someone else and take out loans that can’t be repaid. S.C. State should heed Merrill’s wake-up call. This time lawmakers are serious. The Senate voted overwhelmingly Thursday to furlough workers at S.C. State for up to 20 days. The House went even more hard core, and voted to remove the entire board of trustees and the president.
The Legislature should consider state Rep. Chip Limehouse’s proposal to appoint a receiver to run S.C. State.
“That keeps the school operating and leaves the economy of Orangeburg intact,” Limehouse says. “When Allendale schools had this problem, we didn’t shut them down. The state just took over.”
Don’t be surprised if that is exactly what happens here. Fact is, lawmakers have already quietly asked USC and Clemson officials to take over S.C. State, but they begged off. Shocker there.
Merrill says if he sees a workable plan to save S.C. State, he will happily withdraw his recommendation to close the school.
Of course, that might be a problem since a workable plan would involve more than pointing fingers and losing more money.
And those are the only things S.C. State officials seem to do well.
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com.