Originally created 04/16/06

University System of Georgia's priority list may change



ATLANTA - After months of trying to come up with a new way of funding construction projects at the University System of Georgia's 35 campuses, the Board of Regents is nearing a decision that could mean revamping the building priorities list.

Regents heard about possible solutions to the construction quandary at their last meeting in March and could make a final call on how to revamp the system for approving the projects in the next few months.

Central to the board's thinking is simple arithmetic: Enrollment at Georgia's colleges and universities is growing rapidly, putting pressure on existing buildings, while state bond funding for the system is dwindling.

"We now have a project list that is quite long and would take multiple years at our current funding rate to work through it," said the Medical College of Georgia's president, Dr. Dan Rahn.

The list of projects, each of which will take millions of dollars to build, has sprawled to include nearly 30 classroom buildings, student centers, libraries and the like.

"We've got to make sure that we've got the facilities in place for our growth," said Sen. Brian Kemp, the Athens Republican who heads the committee that oversees college budgets.

The solutions range from a wholesale reordering of the current priority list, which could cause turmoil for colleges that have been waiting to get a new building for years, to efforts to create multiple lists broken down by categories.

"There can be an extraordinary number of different ways to look at this," said Linda Daniels, the vice chancellor for facilities.

But even with a new way of deciding which projects get the go-ahead, regents will still be faced with the simple math: More money would be needed to jump-start many of those buildings currently on deck. And a new system wouldn't help much if the answer is more funding.

"We don't want to focus a lot of energy and change all that if the problem is on the other end," Chancellor Erroll Davis said.

For students, the debate is significant in two ways. First, it could affect whether they get a new building administrators say they need. Second, moves are under way that could have students foot at least some of the bill.

A new system

Currently, the board has one meeting set aside each year to listen to pitches given by college presidents. Their presentations often include examples of why a facility is obsolete, or statistics showing how a new classroom building will help solve a critical state need. The projects that rally enough support from the board are added to the bottom of the list. Each year, ideally, the Legislature considers proposals beginning at the top of the list.

This year, a new wrinkle was thrown in when Gov. Sonny Perdue, citing economic development, decided to elevate a nanotechnology center at Georgia Tech above several construction projects that had been waiting for years. The General Assembly approved the center.

One option being considered by the board would maintain the current system, to a degree. But regents would also be asked, at least initially, to set a new order for proposals already approved.

At the March meeting, some board members voiced reservations about forcing colleges that have already gotten approval to once again go through the presentation process just to keep their spot on the list.

But some say that even if the entire list isn't revamped, the regents should at least consider from time to time whether some projects should be moved up.

"I think the regents and the regents' staff probably should not be tied to that priority list," said Bill Megathlin, an assistant to the president of Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah.

He pointed to an example at MCG: a new building for the school of dentistry that now sits at the bottom of the list.

"What if the state is facing a huge crisis in dentists?" Mr. Megathlin said. "It doesn't make any sense to wait 15 years to get that project going."

Another plan would organize the projects into "barrels" based on what the new buildings would accomplish. One category, for example, might be economic development, while another could be buildings involved in teaching, Ms. Daniels told regents.

More money?

All the reorganization in the world, officials say, won't help if the problem is simply a lack of support, particularly from state lawmakers. But regents and those at the college level are also realistic about whether the General Assembly, facing needs from an array of state agencies, could be persuaded to pump more money into the university system.

"Others have said what we need to do is just convince the Legislature to get a big bond package," Mr. Megathlin said. "That would be great. But I just don't think that's going to sell."

In the legislative session that ended last month, lawmakers did create a new fund that would allow collegesto sell bonds based on future revenues. Those revenues could include student fees.

Officials hope the new authority will help spur additional funds for campus buildings.

"It's one more tool," Mr. Rahn said. "We need a toolbox here that provides us with a variety of options."

Officials say new tools are needed because students will come whether or not state money is available.

Reach Brandon Larrabee at (404) 681-1701 or brandon.larrabee@morris.com.