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$10 million proposed to help W.Va. regional colleges

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education may consider a proposal to offset a new funding formula by asking the Legislature to allocate an additional $10 million to some regional 4-year institutions.

Dr. Jerome Gilbert

The proposal was made by Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert during a finance subcommittee meeting of the Blue Ribbon Commission.

“The only reason we have the Blue Ribbon Commission today is because of opposition to the original formula,” Gilbert told subcommittee members during a teleconference on Thursday. “I think this is a compromise solution.”

Gilbert’s proposal would provide: $568,000 for Bluefield State College, $1,822,000 for Concord University, $2,620,000 for Fairmont State University, $302,000 for Potomac State College of WVU, $2,840,000 for Shepherd University, $1,364,000 for West Liberty University and $484,000 for West Virginia State University.

The proposal would need to be taken up first by the full Blue Ribbon Commission and then would be subject to legislative approval.

Gilbert’s proposal envisions the $10 million as a combination of new money and up to $2 million in reallocation from the budget for the higher education policy commission.

He calculates the money would represent a restoration of about 16.7 percent of the funds that had been cut from higher education.

The most recent cut to higher education came in 2017 — a $16 million cut across the system as legislators grappled with balancing the state budget with declining revenue.

State revenue has been performing better in recent months, about $66 million above estimates for the first two months of this fiscal year.

Gov. Jim Justice established the Blue Ribbon Commission at the end of June, expressing desire to shore up the finances of West Virginia’s four-year colleges. He asked for a December deadline for recommendations.

“Our West Virginia colleges and universities are so critical to our communities, and the continued erosion of their stability deeply concerns me,” Justice stated then.

Lawmakers including House Education Chairman Paul Espinosa, R-Jefferson, have expressed concern that the commission was a way to sidestep legislation mandating a new funding formula for the colleges.

Paul Espinosa

Reacting after today’s teleconference, Espinosa said the $10 million in additional funding from the Legislature is by no means certain and that he still advocates a funding formula.

“While President Gilbert’s proposal would potentially help reduce the funding disparity among our four-year institutions that currently ranges from $2,960 per student at the low end of the spectrum to $6,663 per student at the highest, it is dependent on securing $10 million in higher education funding above and beyond current appropriations,” Espinosa said.

“I remain committed to the adoption of a performance-based funding approach that will appropriate general revenue to our colleges and universities in a rational and transparent manner whether or not additional funding is secured.”

Gilbert suggested his proposal would be a way to assure some funding balance in the short term, shoring up regional institutions, while gaining a little more time to work on the funding formula issue.

Gary White

The subcommittee chairman, Gary White, a consultant and former interim president at Marshall University, echoed that.

“This is to bring equity to the current base and the second step would be to develop a performance-based formula,” White said.

Fairmont State President Mirta Martin suggested the increased funding shouldn’t just be viewed as a one-time bump but instead as a base model.

Mirta Martin

“Then we should get our heads together and provide a more reasonable and equitable funding model based on performance,” Martin said.

Eric Lewis, an accountant who serves on Shepherd’s board of directors, advocated for using Gilbert’s proposal as a starting point.

“This helps get us from one step to the next,” he said.

Lewis advocated for continued work on the funding formula, though.

“The reason we’re in this spot is because for 30 years we haven’t had anything resembling a formula,” he said. “It’s only been based on who your legislator or senator was.”

He added, “I think a formula that as much as possible takes politics out of this would benefit the entire state.”

Gilbert’s plan calls for the colleges receiving the additional $10 million to account for how they would use it.

Eric Lewis

After the $10 million is distributed, a group would begin to work on a new funding formula. The proposal says a formula “should include elements of productivity and enrollment and also should take into account the unique roles played by the various institutions in the state.”

Gilbert’s proposal says the state’s economy should play a role, too:

“It will be recommended to the legislature that they develop an approach for long-term funding of higher education that will be tied to the revenues of the state. As the revenue base of the state increases, a fixed percentage will be directed to higher education.”

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