Scheduling conflicts cancel WISE Council meeting

Business leaders say they are encouraged by the chance to partner with Louisiana colleges and universities to help build the state’s workforce with a new $40 million pool of state money.

But it remains unclear how funding from the Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund, or WISE Fund, will be doled out or how quickly schools will be able to tap into the money.

Higher education and industry leaders met Tuesday for a panel discussion at the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry headquarters in Baton Rouge, a day before the WISE Council, which oversees the fund, was slated to meet again to try to figure out a distribution plan. The Wednesday meeting ended up being canceled because of scheduling conflicts — further squeezing the time line to hash through disagreements over where the money should go.

“We all know $40 million is not nearly enough to solve the problems we have,” University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley said during Tuesday’s discussion.

The WISE Council, a group of workforce and college system leaders tasked with giving recommendations to the state Board of Regents for the fund’s distribution, has yet to agree to any specific recommendations.

During a meeting earlier this month, leaders clashed over which job priorities matter most, a key factor that will significantly sway how much money colleges are able to get.

There’s no guarantee that every campus that seeks money from the WISE Fund will get it, though at least $2 million will go to each system.

The WISE Fund has been hailed as one of the successes from the Louisiana Legislature’s 2014 session. After years of deep budget cuts, the competitive funding program has been seen as a way for colleges to tap into more state resources while helping more directly address the state’s workforce needs.

Under the WISE Fund structure, schools will compete for funding largely based on the degrees and certificates they can produce in high-demand fields such as construction, finance, computer science or engineering. A smaller portion of the funding — about 20 percent — will be distributed based on federally funded research that the colleges perform.

To qualify, schools will have to secure a 20 percent private match from a business partner, either cash or an in-kind contribution, which leaders say will help foster better ties to the business community.

Tuesday’s forum at LABI was one of a few meetings that have been planned to build business interest.

“It seems to me that execution’s going to be key as to whether we’re successful or not,” LABI President Stephen Waguespack said.

Industry leaders packed into the room asked for more details on the program, several noting that they had funding available and wanted some idea of the time line.

“This is just an excellent opportunity,” said Denny Bond, director of development for Crowne Plaza Baton Rouge.

John F. Jones, vice president for public policy and federal legislative affairs for Monroe-based CenturyLink, said he thinks such partnerships will help companies learn and build relationships. “We’d very much like to be a partner in the process,” he said.

Council members say they want to have distribution guidelines in place to submit to the Board of Regents by its Aug. 27 meeting, so that the framework can be in place by September.

But in addition to the cancellation of Wednesday’s meeting this week, a Monday meeting also was canceled. That’s left a meeting next Monday as the last chance to come up with a plan before the Regents meet. Otherwise, it will be another month before schools have a better picture of what they stand to get out of WISE and when.

Louisiana Board of Regents Chairman W. Clinton “Bubba” Rasberry said the WISE Fund, if used effectively, will signal a “paradigm change” for the state.

“If we do not rise and do something unique, then we have lost an opportunity,” he said.

Prior to its passage, some had expressed concern earlier this year that the program would favor the state’s largest institutions that are better equipped for research. Discussions over the allocation of the fund have split largely over which jobs will be given priority — say, the immediate workforce demands met by the state’s community and technical colleges versus high-tech programs at LSU that could take longer to develop but meet industry demands down the road.

The competitive component that has spurred the rift isn’t by coincidence or mistake. Gov. Bobby Jindal, in signing the bill, praised it as a way to encourage schools to push for better outcomes that better benefit the state.

State Sen. Bodi White, R-Central, attended Tuesday’s panel and said he understands the position that schools are placed in. “It’s been tough years, tough decisions. We’ve cut a lot of things,” he said.

But he sees the WISE Fund as one piece toward lifting Louisiana up.

“If we are able to capture this economic boom, we truly will move our state forward,” he said.

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp. Follow our Politics blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog .