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Kent fee proposal is questioned

By admin Published: September 9, 2011

Some state officials are resisting Kent State University's appeal to charge students as much as $720 a year for new academic buildings.

Members of the Ohio Controlling Board say they worry that approval of the request would invite other tax-supported universities to ask for similar hikes. That would blow the lid off state efforts to restrain tuition and increase the number of Ohioans with a college education.

''The need is clear. The mechanism is not,'' said state Sen. Tom Sawyer, D-Akron, a Controlling Board member whose district includes the university.

Last September, KSU President Lester Lefton proposed charging students as much as $720 a year to build new academic buildings and improve existing ones on Kent State's main campus.

KSU trustees approved the project, which would include a new home for the School of Architecture and Environmental Design, a renovated home for art and a student resource and service center in Schwartz Hall.

The remake would cost $250 million, with $40 million coming directly from KSU and the rest from students who would pay off bonds with the additional fee for the next 30 years.

''We have been meeting, listening and talking to the Board of Regents, legislators and Gov. Kasich's administration,'' Gregg Floyd, KSU senior vice president for finance and administration, said in a written statement. ''We are committing to finding a solution that is good for all.''

KSU's plan has been in play in Columbus since last fall.

Eric Fingerhut, then chancellor of the Ohio Board of Regents, rejected the request on the grounds that students shouldn't have to pay to build their classrooms. When John Kasich became governor in January, his chancellor, Jim Petro, endorsed the plan in a May directive because of the ''documented need'' and the ''constraints of the state budget to provide alternative funding.''

Since then, Kent State has been approaching members of the powerful Ohio Controlling Board, the state panel of six legislators and one state official that oversees adjustments to state budget appropriations. The university needs the board's approval to begin to levy the fee that would start at $7 per credit hour and would be phased in over five years to total $720 a year for full-time undergraduates.

Sawyer said he is concerned that KSU is bypassing the legislature.

The issue of charging students for the construction of academic buildings never before done in Ohio should be explored by the General Assembly, not by the select panel that is the Controlling Board, he said.

Having the Controlling Board authorize the fee ''would give me an enormous amount of power,'' Sawyer said.

''I've told Kent State right from the start that I oppose it,'' board member Chris Widener, R-Springfield, said. ''I just can't see starting down the path of mortgaging capital improvements on the backs of Ohio students.''

Board President Randy Cole, a policy adviser of the state Office of Budget and Management, said he ''is one of the people asking if this should even be brought forward'' and placed on the board's agenda at all.

Board members said they feared the KSU request would set off a stream of similar appeals from the more than 50 tax-supported institutions across the state, subverting efforts to control tuition.

''It becomes difficult for us to allow one institution to go above the (3.5 percent tuition) cap and turn around and tell others that their institution doesn't merit that,'' state Rep. Jay Hottinger, R-Newark, said.

Luis Proenza, president of the University of Akron, said his university might be one of those to request a similar fee if KSU's were approved.

UA just completed $620 million of campus improvements in the traditional way: tapping state capital funds and selling bonds and paying them back from expanding enrollment.

But there is more to be done, Proenza said.

''It's something that we would want to consider,'' he said. ''If it's the intention of the legislature to pass this, it should be done for all universities.''

Two other board members Sen. Shannon Jones, R-Springboro; and Rep. Clayton Luckie, D-Dayton did not respond to requests for comment. Rep. John Carey, R-Wellston, said through a spokeswoman that he didn't want to comment until the issue is on the agenda.

Issues need at least four of the Controlling Board's seven votes for approval. The board does not have an appeal process, and requests are re-examined only if plans change extensively, Cole said.

Carol Biliczky can be reached at cbiliczky@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3729.

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