W.Va. colleges banking on $10 million that might not be available

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia college presidents might like $10 million from the governor’s contingency fund to shore up their budgets, but the governor himself says that doesn’t seem possible.

“If tomorrow I would say ‘Well, I’m going to give $10 million to preserve these institutions, the smaller schools,’ there’s not $10 million there that I have the discretion to just go and do that,” Gov. Jim Justice said.

Twice during recent meetings of the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education, college presidents have discussed a possible $10 million influx for the current fiscal year.

College presidents have suggested the additional money would be distributed based on a weighted number of full-time students:

Glenville State University would receive $40,000; Concord University would receive about $1.63 million; West Virginia State University, $860,000; West Liberty, $1.02 million; Bluefield State University, $553,000; Shepherd University, $2.5 million; and Fairmont State University, more than $3.4 million.

Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert first proposed the additional $10 million during a meeting last month.

Asked about it today, Justice said his contingency fund seems an unlikely source.

“Within the governor’s contingency fund, there’s different levels within that fund,” Justice said today during a press conference.

“But $10 million, as far as what I can access and touch tomorrow probably exceeds what’s there. But there’s another bridge that goes up to almost $50-some million dollars that’s there.”

Mike Hall

Justice administration Chief of Staff Mike Hall said that larger pool of money also is largely untouchable.

“Most of that money is reserved for floods, the big disasters that end up having to be matched,” Hall said. “That’s why it’s in the contingency fund.”

Of any money that might be accessible, “We’re at like an $8 million range for other, more discretionary things. So that would break that bank. I think we’ll look at other directions for that kind of funding to higher ed.”

Hall suggested a different possibility might be a supplemental appropriation through the Legislature.

Marshall President Gilbert’s original proposal envisioned the $10 million as a combination of new money and up to $2 million in reallocation from the budget for the state’s Higher Education Policy Commission.

The contingency fund idea came up later, as college presidents described needing the money prior to the next fiscal year.

A potential cut of $2 million to the Higher Education Policy Commission erupted as its own controversy this week when the organization’s chairman wrote a long, stern letter about the possible effects.

HEPC Chairman Mike Farrell

“The Blue Ribbon Commission has the opportunity to conduct a deliberative, objective and open process during the next six weeks that will be respected by the Governor, Senate and House of Delegates,” wrote HEPC chairman Michael Farrell.

“A recommendation to eliminate or cripple it by a $2 million reduction in its appropriations will not garner that respect.”

The Blue Ribbon Commission next meets Friday at Tamarack in Beckley. A central agenda item is “an exchange of ideas about the future of West Virginia’s Higher Education Policy Commission.”

“I really think the next meeting on Friday will be critical,” West Virginia University President Gordon Gee said on a conference call this week.

The Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education was established in June by Governor Justice. He asked it to study ways for West Virginia to provide a more efficient and meaningful higher education system.

Today Justice withheld judgment on the Blue Ribbon Commission’s progress. He particularly wasn’t ready to say whether the role of the Higher Education Policy Commission should change.

“I think it’s premature for me to weigh in and say the role should change,” Justice said.

“Here’s the whole mission statement: There are inefficiencies within the higher education community today, real inefficiencies and those inefficiencies could lead to closures — closures of schools in our communities that could be bad.”

The governor expressed confidence that the Blue Ribbon Commission, as led by Gee, will be successful.

“We’ll see. We’ll see,” he said. “They’ll do good work.”

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