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State Education Budget Cuts 

Field Trip: From budget cuts to guns on campus, education issues will draw big crowds to Baton Rouge this year.

Gov. Bobby Jindal wants to stuff Louisiana's colleges and universities into a time machine and turn the dial back to 1999. At least that's how Louisiana State University Chancellor Michael V. Martin described Jindal's executive budget last week, when $219 million worth of cuts were assigned to higher education. "It will be like the flagship agenda never happened," Martin says. "The cuts will likely cause us to fall back to where we were eight or 10 years ago."

  In Lake Charles, education officials contend Jindal's time machine will reach back even farther. McNeese State University President Bob Hebert, for instance, says the scheduled cuts are similar to those doled out during the early 1980s.

  "For a decade following the cuts, we continued to pay the price because of the loss of programs, deteriorating buildings, negative impacts on recruiting, retention and graduation rates," Hebert says, predicting a similar path should Jindal's budget pass intact.

  University of Louisiana at Lafayette President Joseph Savoie is lobbying the business community. He argues that UL-Lafayette attracts roughly $50 million in external research funding each year — money that would evaporate under Jindal's proposal.

  "That money is used to pay salaries of people who live here," he says. "It is used to purchase equipment, supplies and services from local and state vendors. So when the university's research budget is cut, the Acadiana and state economies feel the sting."

  Given the drama higher education officials are stirring up in their own communities, lawmakers can expect quite a show when the legislative session convenes April 27 in Baton Rouge. To soften the blow, Jindal announced last week that roughly $99 million from the state's remaining surplus will be used for planned and ongoing infrastructure projects at the state's two-year and four-year colleges. Many of the projects will begin next year, and most will be completed by 2011.

  Locally, the projects include $6 million for the University of New Orleans' library and $2 million for Southern University at New Orleans to replace its water lines. Overall, however, it's little more than a proverbial spoonful of sugar that Jindal hopes will help Louisiana's campuses swallow his proposed cuts. The $99 million in surplus funds that the governor is directing to infrastructure projects pales in comparison to the $1 billion in backlogged projects.

  As if that's not enough to keep higher education officials busy this session, Louisiana's colleges and universities will again oppose (for the second consecutive year) legislation that would allow individuals to carry concealed weapons on college campuses. When Rep. Ernest Wooton, R-Belle Chasse, the former sheriff of Plaquemines Parish, introduced his bill last year, the debate packed committee rooms with student government representatives and college officials who oppose the idea. While many proponents made appearances as well, the voice of opposition was overwhelming. The proposal died before it got a hearing in the full House.

  Nicholls State University President Stephen Hulbert held a news conference in Thibodaux during the early phases of the policy discussion, touting a resolution passed by him and other University of Louisiana System chancellors asking the Legislature to torpedo the legislation. According to Nicholls spokesperson Graham Harvey, the same level of opposition can be expected this year. "The administration's position hasn't changed a bit," Harvey says.

  On the local level, school board members and parents of middle and elementary school students will trek to Baton Rouge as well. Jindal has already nixed the customary inflation-based increase for public schools. Lawmakers usually approve a funding boost of 2.75 percent. This year Jindal obviously has other plans for that $66 million.

  Local school boards are not off the hook either. State Education Superintendent Paul Pastorek is pushing a plan that would shake the boards to their foundations. He wants to change the way boards micromanage their districts and fire superintendents. He also proposes term limits for local school board members and a $200 cap on their salaries.

  When the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education met last week, however, the public pressure was so intense that many of Pastorek's ideas may already be dead for the session. Instead, lawmakers may just form another task force to study the ideas — to death.

  Although Jindal campaigned on ethics reform in 2007, he also promised a gold standard for Louisiana's education system. He did not, however, foresee the fiscal scenario that confronts him now. Nor, perhaps, is he looking forward to seeing students, professors and parents pack the state Capitol.

  It looks as though everyone will get a civics lesson this spring and summer.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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