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Moral and Political Abandonment


The devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina did not end when the floodwaters receded. In many ways, the greater New Orleans area continues to get pounded, particularly in the form of official and political neglect. A glaring example of that is the pittance accorded to area colleges and universities by the state Board of Regents in its proposed allocation of increased operating expenditures for higher education. Of more than $95 million in increased spending recommended for the state's 14 four-year institutions of higher education, the regents would put only $1.95 million into UNO and a paltry $372,000 into SUNO. Both universities were hit hard by Katrina and suffered enormous losses to their infrastructure and to their human capital in terms of enrollment and lost faculty. The needs at these universities have never been greater, and yet their support at the Board of Regents level appears to be at an all-time low. That is outrageous.

The news is equally grim for the area's two-year institutions. Of the nearly $10 million sought by the regents for the state's 12 two-year institutions, less than $1.2 million has been set aside for Delgado Community College in New Orleans and Nunez Community College in Chalmette -- combined. That's a total increase of only $3.5 million in flexible funding for the four New Orleans area institutions for next year. If pre-Katrina student levels were used as the basis for funding, that amount would be more than $48 million.

"The New Orleans area public colleges and universities need additional ongoing revenue to continue to serve the region and alleviate the losses created by Hurricane Katrina," says Mark Drennen, president and CEO of GNO Inc. "The cost of conducting business has increased for these institutions since the storm, and fixed costs have not adjusted to that increase. Faculty retention is essential to stabilizing and rebuilding institutions. Since the storm, the region's public institutions have each lost a significant percentage of their faculty. This devastating trend will grow if retention is not immediately addressed."

We agree.

Higher education is a major economic engine for the greater New Orleans area. The 10 colleges and universities in the region generated an economic impact of more than $2 billion before Katrina, with total employment at 23,000 people and total student enrollment at 85,000. The schools produced more than $56 million in state and local tax revenue. Most important, nearly half their graduates historically stayed in the region and joined the local labor force.

Clearly, our public colleges and universities are key drivers in the region's full economic recovery. Unfortunately, that message seems to be lost on the Board of Regents, which voted to increase spending by nearly $18.5 million at LSU and almost $14.7 million at the University of Louisiana-Lafayette -- the one-time home base of Gov. Kathleen Blanco's husband, Raymond "Coach" Blanco. Increased spending at those two institutions alone is nearly 10 times what the regents propose for the four local colleges and universities combined. That the governor would incorporate this kind of disparity into her administration's proposed budget constitutes an egregious moral and political abandonment of the region that was most impacted by Katrina -- the same area that elected her four years ago. What was she thinking?

UNO, SUNO, Delgado and Nunez have lost nearly $75 million in operating revenues since Katrina, according to a GNO Inc. analysis. That includes more than $57 million in tuition and fees and $17 million in state budget cuts. Moreover, New Orleans area universities and colleges have suffered more than $400 million in physical damage to facilities and infrastructure as a result of Katrina. GNO Inc. estimates that at least 50,000 workers will be needed in the next five years for economic recovery. Colleges and universities provide the intellectual capital, talent and research to increase the economic competitiveness and viability of existing industries and drive new technologies, entrepreneurship and emerging industries. This is the time to invest in local higher education -- and thanks to more than $3 billion in surplus revenues, Louisiana has the money to make that investment.

But does it have the will?

The Board of Regents is Louisiana's top-ranking higher education board, and its proposed budgets carry great weight. Fortunately, state lawmakers have the final say, and it's common for legislators to rewrite or supplement the administration's spending plan. GNO Inc. and a host of local civic and educational organizations are supporting an additional $20 million in "higher education recovery funding" for local colleges and universities -- on top of the $10 million currently reserved in the administration's budget. State Rep. John Alario, chair of the House Appropriations Committee and one of the most effective lawmakers on fiscal matters, has filed a supplemental appropriations bill to provide that $20 million. State Rep. Cheryl Gray of New Orleans has likewise proposed a $20 million amendment to the governor's budget. If approved, either the Alario bill or the Gray amendment would provide money for faculty recruitment and retention as well as research and operations at our four public colleges and universities.

We urge all lawmakers to join Reps. Alario and Gray in their efforts to increase funding at these hard-hit institutions. Gov. Blanco also should lend her support to the effort as a sign of her continued commitment to the communities and institutions most affected by Hurricane Katrina.

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