Western Maryland–Screwed Again

The dispute in Annapolis over the state’s budget is adversely affecting higher education in Western Maryland as Washington County and beyond get screwed by the focus on Baltimore and Suburban Washington.

There are only two state schools of higher edcuation in Western Maryland, Frostburg State University and the University System of Maryland-Hagerstown, and the General Assembly seems dedicated on killing USM-H. The entire fiscal year budget request for USM-H is $2.1 million, a vertiable steal in terms of fiscal outlays, but the House of Delegates wanted to slash the budget by nearly 66% and the Senate wanted to keep the budget request intact.

On Tuesday, the fourth day of negotiations over numerous items in the state’s next operating budget, House representatives put forward a compromise plan:

· The $2.1 million USM-H budget would be cut to $1.1 million, with the other $1 million divided among non-USM centers.

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· Another $500,000 would be transferred to USM-H from within the university system, giving Hagerstown $1.6 million.

· The Hagerstown center would make up the $500,000 gap in its budget through contributions from local governments and by collecting rent, both from USM schools with programs there and community groups who use the building.

Senate representatives were strongly opposed, sparking perhaps the most heated debate since the conference committee started meeting Thursday.

“What’s your plan for this place, to succeed or to fail?” Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, D-Howard/Baltimore County, sharply asked Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., D-St. Mary’s, a proponent of splitting up USM-H money to benefit other centers.

Bohanan argued that it’s unfair for six higher education centers outside the university system to share $850,000 when USM-H, with far fewer students, gets much more money.

“Do you do that successfully by looking to kill another center?” asked Sen. David R. Brinkley, R-Carroll/Frederick.

“We are not looking to kill your center,” Bohanan said.

Tuesday’s pointed debate followed three straight negotiating sessions in which USM-H funding was put on hold without discussion.

The problem of course is that Bohanan, who wants more of the money to go to Maryland Higher Education Centers, which are not affiliated with the University System of Maryland, which happens to have a facility in Bohanan’s home county of St. Mary’s County, chairs the committee that controls higher education spending.

Now the compromise seems reasonable right. But here are a few facts. First, none of the six state Universities with programs at USM-H, Frostburg State, Towson, University of Maryland-College Park, University of Maryland Baltimore County, Salisbury State, and University of Maryland-University College currently pay to use the USM-H facilities. Furthermore, USM-H pays Towson to have a program at the facility, a nursing program that is providing training in a critical need profession.

Second, by asking for rent, which the resdient schools probably don’t have a budget request in their 2009 budget requests for “rent” at the facility, seems ludicrous since all the schools are USM schools, why charge rent. I can see if a private college wanted to use space in the facility, by why charge rent to other public universities to use a public university facility? That is just shifting money from one pocket to the other.

Third, the USM-H facility has been seen as a key part of the revitalization of the downtown Hagerstown area. New businesses have sprung up, not just supporting the school, but supported by the students, faculty and staff.

Fourth, rumors have it that USM-H was considering acquiring some nearby buildings to expand their campus and their program offerings. Whether that plans goes forward or not may depend upon the budget allocations for 2009 and 2010. But it would seem a shame to prevent such growth when the demand for higher education in Western Maryland is only going to grow.

Fifth, the compromise calls for local government, i.e. Hagerstown and Washington county to kick in some money to support the center. I don’t know of any other state university or an MHEC that is required to get some funding from the local community. It seems ludicrous for the local community to support a state institution. Providing local support like police services during special events seems reasonable, but why does Hagerstown have to pay for the presence of a state university. College Park doesn’t pay to have the University of Maryland there, nor does Towson, MD pay to have Towson University there. The difference is that it is Western Maryland, the red-headed bastard step-child of Maryland.

Sixth and finally, as noted before, USM-H supplies educational services for critical need professions, nursing, education, information technology and master’s programs in engineering, education, and nursing. Why cut the small budget for these important programs. Most of the students at USM-H are part-time students, people who hold down full-time jobs and go to school in the evenings, without the opportunity or ability to commute 75-100 miles one way to attend programs in suburban Washington and Baltimore.

I understand Bohanan wants higher education opportunities in St. Mary’s County. Fine, find the money by cutting one of the hundreds of other useless budget items that currently dots the budget.

For far too long, Western Maryland has suffered under the yoke of Baltimore and Western Maryland. This is just the final straw for many people since it has become apparent that higher education, according to Bohanan, is only for the people east of Frederick County.

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