Louisiana colleges race to spend maintenance funds or lose them

LSU’s College of Agriculture building isn’t yet handicap-accessible, Southern University’s law school needs a new roof and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Billeaud Hall needs a $900,000 air conditioning system replacement.

Across the state, Louisiana’s public colleges and universities are in the midst of a spending spree, trying to patch, fix and replace as many of their leaking roofs, cracked sidewalks and broken windows as possible before the fiscal year ends on June 30.

It’s the same date when the state can swoop in and snatch away any of the more than $40 million schools got from the Legislature in June to fix some of the nagging maintenance issues on college campuses.

One caveat of accepting the money — $10 million to each of the state’s four college and university systems — is that schools have one year to spend it before the state takes it back.

It was somewhat of a surprise that Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature were able to scrape together several millions of dollars in the last days of the 2013 legislative session to give colleges and universities some relief. Louisiana’s higher education institutions have felt the hurt of a shaky economy, being stripped of roughly 80 percent — more than $700 million — of their state funding since 2008.

When lawmakers first decided they wanted to find some extra money for schools, they originally intended for those dollars to be used to address the nearly $2 billion maintenance backlog on Louisiana’s college campuses.

When the proposal made it to the state Senate, legislators there decided to give college administrators flexibility to use the money for operational costs as well.

LSU, in particular, took advantage of that leeway.

The Legislature mandated the first $1 million of LSU’s $10 million allocation go to the Pennington Biomedical Research Center.

LSU spokesman Jason Droddy explained the System Office wanted to see some of the remaining $9 million go toward employee pay raises.

It’s something that had been discussed for a while. Before LSU President F. King Alexander arrived in Baton Rouge, his predecessor, William Jenkins, had informed the state that LSU employees were in dire need of pay adjustments.

As the state’s flagship university, LSU competes with other flagships around the country for professors, researchers and the research dollars they bring. Jenkins, and later Alexander, argued LSU can’t compete if salaries are stagnant.

As a result, employees on LSU’s Baton Rouge campus received pay increases of up to 4 percent, while faculty and staff on LSU’s other campuses in Shreveport and Eunice received one-time pay adjustments. Employees at LSU-Alexandria also received pay adjustments, but those were taken out of a different pot of money.

Droddy said administrators made the calculation that pay bumps were more of an immediate need at LSU. He said system leaders were confident they would bring in enough extra money in the following months, through increased enrollment and tuition increases, to put a dent in LSU’s maintenance backlog.

“We could project for that revenue with confidence,” he said.

The Southern University System got special consideration from the Legislature. Aside from the $10 million the state’s other three systems received, lawmakers threw in an extra $6.5 million for Southern to get its finances in order.

Southern’s Baton Rouge campus looked to be in particularly bad shape last year, facing a $7 million budget shortfall for the 2013-14 fiscal year, or $12 million if unfunded mandates are included.

Southern President Ronald Mason said the first priority was to balance the Baton Rouge campus’ budget. Following that, Mason said the needs of each of the system’s five campuses were prioritized among a new roof for the law school, renovations to Southern’s downtown Shreveport building and lots of computer upgrades throughout the campuses.

While not all of Southern’s approved maintenance projects have been finished, Mason said he expects all of the money to be spent before the summer deadline.

Louisiana’s two-year schools took a similar approach. Quintin Taylor, spokesman for the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, said the money was split up among the system’s 13 schools, with each getting a minimum of $250,000. Delgado Community College, in New Orleans, got the most, with a $2.8 million share of the system’s $10 million.

The LCTCS list of projects include renovations to make a number of facilities compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act , several heating, ventilation and air conditioning improvements, waterproofing and roof repairs.

Taylor said LCTCS has plans for all of the money appropriated by the Legislature.

“We’ve prioritized our most pressing needs,” he said. “We’ll use the money where it will be most effective. We’re going to use it all.”