Schools, businesses could team up

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COLUMBIA — This month, state lawmakers will decide whether to let Aiken Technical College team up with private companies to tailor students’ training for specific jobs and negotiate shared campus facilities.

I t’s not clear who would pay for the new buildings and equipment that might be needed.

Gov. Mark Sanford vetoed a bill that would create an “enterprise authority board” to approve the public-private deals at Aiken Tech. The legislation, H. 3616, which would establish the same for four other technical colleges, was drafted with the intention of letting schools leap regulatory hurdles.

Mr. Sanford warned against launching programs that could end up like the University of South Carolina’s Innovista, a public-private research center that he argued had not lived up to its promise when private capital dried up.

“We believe it is dangerous to get into the practice Kevin Costner used in the movie Field of Dreams, with the approach of building it in the hope that 'they will come,’” Mr. Sanford wrote in his veto.

“Given the current fiscal climate – and no solid assurance that the situation will dramatically improve within the next year or so – we believe that schools should be focusing their resources toward fulfilling their core mission – educating students – rather than what has been, in some cases, speculative investment with public dollars.”

To that, Kelly Steinhilper, speaking for the state’s technical college system, said, “H. 3616 is not a funding request but would allow for flexibility for the local technical colleges in meeting business needs.”

But Mr. Sanford warned against using state dollars or tuition increases to construct buildings for businesses.

That’s not the way the president of the Aiken Technical College envisions it.

“An enterprise campus authority will not and cannot result in drawing funds away from the operations of the college or the support of our student body,” said Susan Winsor, who noted that any collaboration would have to be self-supporting.

Still, how much could taxpayers be expected to chip in?

The legislation deliberately leaves that issue out so the parties have flexibility, said Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, its sponsor.

But scenarios include letting a company lease a facility for training students, saving the company the cost of building its own facility, while producing graduates with skills for a specific job.

Advocates say local leaders should be the ones deciding which deals are worthwhile.

“These are people who are business people in the area, and they really would be better than politicians because they understand the rigors and what it takes to make things happen every day,” he said

Mr. Simrill said his bill would particularly aid border-county colleges such as Aiken Tech by helping them attract company headquarters, which gravitate to bigger cities in Georgia and North Carolina.

WHAT'S NEXT

The Senate is scheduled to vote June 16 after the House unanimously overrode the governor’s veto.


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