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House oversight panel pushes higher education officials to defend spending

Wednesday, September 25, 2013 | 7:37 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — University of Missouri System and Missouri Department of Higher Education officials addressed questions from a House oversight committee Wednesday, defending internal accountability of spending and explaining a new policy aimed at reducing remediation rates.

The Interim Committee on Improving Government Responsiveness and Efficiency heard testimony from David Russell, commissioner of higher education, and Thomas Richards, UM System interim vice president of finance, and pushed them to explain how state dollars are being used at publicly funded schools.

Russell said all funding requests above the current baseline for fiscal year 2014 are based on outcomes of specific objectives set forth by the different schools. But legislators said they wanted to see more specific performance measures of core spending before they would be willing to approve additional money for colleges and universities across the state.

"It’s important that we know how the money that has already been appropriated is being used," said Rep. Kathie Conway, R-St. Charles.

Conway and Rep. Tom Flanigan, R-Carthage, asked Russell for a detailed compendium of line-by-line budget information from each of the more than 200 universities and colleges that receive state funding, information they said is not easily available.

“To get that, I will have to go to the universities and colleges individually,” Conway said.

Flanigan said he wants to see a report that “delineates all the way down to the number of janitors” at each institution.

Rep. Marsha Haefner, R-St. Louis, requested information comparing colleges and universities within the state about what schools are “doing better with less.”

Rather than continuing to allocate money based on current proportions, Richards said the UM System was beginning to shift toward funding based on a competitive process among the four campuses. The process would be directly connected to meeting specific strategic goals set forth by each school.

Over the past decade, class sizes have increased and services have decreased at UM campuses. Richards said the university has had to defer a significant amount of maintenance and repair of facilities in order to balance the budget, creating a backlog of buildings and equipment in desparate need of repairs or replacement.

“One example might be a brand-new, expensive, high-tech piece of lab equipment where I’ve seen a plastic tarp hanging over the top, so water when it rains won’t leak and damage the equipment,” Richards said. “That’s just something we have to deal with. Those are risks given the limitations we have.”

Haefner also raised concerns about the nuclear research reactor at MU and the measures taken to make sure it is adequately protected, citing a recent study that connected the university’s reactor to the greater vulnerability of the state compared to others.

“(The reactor) does contain bomb-grade material that a terrorist could possibly use,” she said.

Russell said the nuclear reactor is a crucial asset in fulfilling MU’s mission as a major research university.

“Its utility is not only as great as it ever was, but potential research applications are just limitless. … We need to keep it,” Russell said. “(MU) is extremely well-prepared for any event that might occur.”

State paying $90 million to prepare students for college

Making sure students are prepared for college courses, or remediation, costs the state about $90 million per year in direct expenses and deferred costs that could be used for other purposes, Rep. John Mayfield, D-Independence, said.

Mayfield said the amount of money being spent on remediation constitutes a “crisis” that needs to be addressed.

“Ninety million is a lot of money,” Mayfield said. “And you know we are siphoning money off of kids that really need it to train; kids that are for one reason or another behind.”

Rusty Monhollon, assistant commissioner for academic affairs, said the state had developed a task force of officials from the Department of Higher Education, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and local districts to compile best practices and strategies for reducing remediation costs.

He cited a better alignment of college and K-12 curriculums and coordination in order to identify students and intervene with them before high school graduation. But he said the cost of doing nothing and letting students fall behind was greater than any budget line. The group also recommended adding an additional year of math to the high school curriculum.

Monhollon said 52 percent of students at two-year college and 14 percent of students at four-year schools had to enroll in remedial courses before starting work toward a degree.

“It is our responsibility because these are our children, these are our students in the state of Missouri,” Monhollon said.

Some legislators suggested shifting the burden of remediation costs back to the high schools and identifying the districts having the most difficulty preparing students for college courses.

“It appears to me that higher ed is assuming responsibility that should belong to high schools,” said Rep. Anne Zerr, R-St. Charles.

“It seems like we're going down a slippery slope because this cancer of poor education, poor learning is sifting through the system, through grade school, through high school and now it's creeping into college. … So we need to throw it back on who is responsible,” Zerr said.

Supervising editor is Gary Castor.


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