SC State seeks ‘firebreak’ to turn around struggling school

University officials make budget pitch to lawmakers

ashain@thestate.comJanuary 24, 2013 

— New leaders at embattled S.C. State University are trying to build a “firebreak” to stem falling enrollment and fix budget deficits that have challenged the historically black college along with recent board of trustee turmoil.

School leaders, including interim president Cynthia Warrick, administrators, student government representatives and Miss S.C. State, traveled to Columbia from Orangeburg to make their budget pitch to lawmakers Wednesday.

They were peppered with questions from a four-member House budget subcommittee about the school’s financial standing (needs to improve) and accreditation (doing fine).

“Frankly, if I had a son, daughter that was considering going there, with some of the publicity, I might not consider it,” state Rep. B.R. Skelton, R-Pickens, told school officials. “One of the problems you have to overcome is get beyond this criticism and get a positive image.”

S.C. State is trying to make up a $5.8 million deficit, while dealing with a 22 percent decline in its enrollment, which has fallen to 3,800 over the past five years. Graduation rates, average SAT scores and merit-based scholarship awards also have dropped in recent years.

“We don’t believe the institution would remain viable if these trends were to continue,” S.C. State chief financial officer Eric Eaton told lawmakers. “We are working on strategies to construct what I would call a ‘firebreak’ in those trends.”

The school is developing better student recruitment programs that emphasize attracting graduates from two-year technical schools, he said. S.C. State also is cutting its budget across the board and reducing adjunct professors, Warrick said.

Gov. Nikki Haley’s proposed budget recommended no additional spending at S.C. State other than about $1 million for building repairs. But the school wants to modernize buildings to win students, including spending $10 million for a new student union and fitness center.

“We think we can compete on programs, but we compete through the eyes of students and their parents with what they see when they cross the threshold,” Eaton told lawmakers.

State Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, who sits on the subcommittee, said he wants lawmakers to get behind S.C. State “so it doesn’t sound like they’re on trial.”

Subcommittee chairman Chip Limehouse, R-Charleston, acknowledged “it is a new day,” urging the school to look at working with private developers to build needed dorms. “The takeaway for you all today is privatize, privatize, privatize.”

The college’s new leaders, who have been on campus for less than a year, also need to build trust, legislators said.

“Get S.C. State to a point where we can say ‘yes’ to the university,” state Rep. Garry Smith, R-Greenville, told university officials.

Four S.C. State trustees have left in the past year, including former chairman Jonathan Pinson, who pleaded not guilty earlier this month to fraud charges related to the school.

State Rep. Bakari Sellers, D-Bamberg, said Wednesday that he has introduced a bill to replace 12 of S.C. State’s 13 trustees in July, saying new leaders are needed at the school.

But Southern Association of Colleges and Schools president Belle Wheelan repeated concerns that she raised last year, saying failing to follow state law while removing board members could threaten S.C. State’s accreditation. Sellers’ bill must state why the board members are being fired, she added.

Sellers said he would add the necessary language.

Legislation to replace some or all S.C. State trustees failed last year.

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