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Budget stalemate could leave WCU out in the cold

Speaker of the House Tim Moore (center) tours Western Carolina University’s old steam plant with (left to right) WCU Board of Trustees Member Tim Haskett, Jackson County Commissioner Ron Mau, WCU Chancellor Kelly Brown, Sen. Jim Davis and Rep. Kevin Corbin. Speaker of the House Tim Moore (center) tours Western Carolina University’s old steam plant with (left to right) WCU Board of Trustees Member Tim Haskett, Jackson County Commissioner Ron Mau, WCU Chancellor Kelly Brown, Sen. Jim Davis and Rep. Kevin Corbin. Caitlin Penna/WCU photo

Like all of North Carolina’s universities, Western Carolina University in Cullowhee has some pressing capital project funding needs that aren’t being met, due to the stalemate in Raleigh over the state’s budget.

“The ongoing budget standoff is preventing these funds from being dispersed to the universities,” said N.C House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland. “That's why I feel it's important to move forward with the budget.”

Moore and House Republicans overrode a veto issued by Gov. Roy Cooper, D-Rocky Mount, in controversial fashion last month; Democrats say Republicans deceived them about when an override vote would take place, but Republicans say that’s not the case.

Regardless, unless and until the Senate also overrides Cooper’s budget veto, the budget remains in limbo more than three months after it was supposed to be enacted, and funding to entities like WCU remains uncertain.

Moore stopped in Cullowhee Oct. 3 as part of a statewide tour of N.C. universities to get a firsthand look at how the budget impasse is causing problems for the school.

Along with local elected officials Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, Rep. Kevin Corbin, R-Franklin, and Jackson County Commissioner Ron Mau, Moore joined WCU’s newly-minted Chancellor Kelli Brown at the school’s aging steam plant, which is badly in need of renovations.

The plant provides the university with heat and water, but the boilers have outlasted their projected service life. If one fails, like one did in 2016, the campus could be forced to suspend operations.

In 2018, the legislature funded about half of the $33 million steam plant project, but the second chunk of money — around $16 million — hasn’t yet materialized.

“The governor has taken a position that he did not want to see a budget enacted if we did not also adopt a full Medicaid expansion,” said Moore. “Look, I'm glad to sit down and have a conversation of providing more access to healthcare, whether it's resources to ensure that they're covered as well as locations to get service in particular in our rural areas. But we don't need to hold up the entire $24 billion budget over any one issue,” said Moore.

Thanks to enrollment growth in eight of the last nine years, WCU says it needs more classroom space, and wants Moore and the legislature to fund renovations of an old residence hall, so it can be turned into classrooms.

That, too, is hung up by political brinksmanship in Raleigh, even as Chancellor Brown says the school is being judicious about its current and long-term needs.

In 2018, U.S. birth rates fell to their lowest level in more than 30 years, meaning in about two decades, there will be fewer and fewer students graduating from high school and thinking about college.

Coupled with a renewed push toward vocational education for careers in the trades, those demographic trends could mean that the rush to repurpose empty campus buildings — urgently needed at present — might translate to an expensive surplus down the road during a time of decreased revenues.

“I think that we understand those demographics,” said Brown. “We're actually using those demographics now to be able to think about our strategic enrollment planning. We're using those demographics to be able to understand how we think about our infrastructure.”

One example, according to Brown, is that there won’t be a drastic expansion in student housing any time soon.

“It would be silly for us, to be quite honest with you, to think that we're going to have residence halls for 7,000 or 8,000 students. Do we have that many students? Absolutely,” she said. “But knowing what the demographics are going to be, the last thing I want is 15 or 20 years from now to leave for one of my successors an empty residence hall.”

To the extent that one could consider staff a part of the university’s infrastructure, Brown said she’s also keeping an eye on hiring so there’s the right amount of professors, in the right amount of buildings, teaching the right amount of students.

“We're being very intentional, making sure that we're hiring the right kinds of staff for our needs as we look into the future,” she said. “I would hope that we would not be in that place where someone would look back and say, ‘What were they thinking?’ I would hope that they would say, ‘Wow, we're really glad that they thought that way and that we're not left with some of these buildings, or we don't have a surplus of faculty or staff.’”

While Brown and university leadership have the opportunity to manage existing assets in line with projections, one thing they have less control over is funding for the N.C. Promise tuition plan.

N.C. Promise ensures that students at the UNC system schools — Elizabeth City State University, The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and WCU — will pay only $500 a semester for tuition.

Growth had already been taking place at WCU prior to implementation of the tuition plan, but making college more affordable has also drawn more students to the school. N.C. Promise, though, is funded by the legislature each year; consequently, it could shrink, expand or disappear at any time.

“I feel very confident that the citizens of the state of North Carolina are going to see this as something that really helps to make a college education affordable,” Brown said. “Not just accessible, but affordable, so that when students graduate, they can leave with as little or minimal debt as possible.”

That helps not only students, but the local economy — when students leave college with little debt, they can spend that money becoming homeowners or entrepreneurs instead of being saddled with a lifetime of interest payments.

“If they graduate in four years, then they go out into the workplace, or they go off to graduate school or professional schools, people are going to see that,” said Brown. “Everyone's going to say, ‘Why wouldn't we want to do this? Why wouldn't we want to continue to fund N.C. Promise?’”

Moore said he recognizes how susceptible the N.C. Promise tuition plan could be to the whims of a fickle legislature, but also thinks the plan’s results speak for themselves.

“Of course, I can only control a two-year cycle, and we have elections every two years so someone coming into the job two years or four years or whenever from now can always change anything,” he said. “But I think the greatest measure of the long term viability of the program is the success that it's had. I have yet to find anyone who does not think this has been a successful program. I mean, it's making college more affordable for so many North Carolinians. That's the goal, right?”

That may be so, but the greater goal is utilizing the state’s educational system — and funding from the legislature — to break the intergenerational cycles of poverty that have haunted Southern Appalachia for decades.

“Everybody wants their children to do better than the generation before and so on. A great education, beginning of course with pre-K all the way through K-12 and then the universities and the community colleges, that's the key to getting there,” said Moore. “You can't measure the dividends that investing in public education pays.”

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