State officials join students at higher education forum

K.C. Howard

Behind the closed and forlorn daycare center at North Hennepin Community College lies an empty swimming pool full of water ready for use.

It is a desolate facility confined by locked doors and home to one water aerobics class.

“It’s not used because the funding is not there,” said Jeff Rother, vice president of the college’s student senate.

NHCC administrators said funding for lifeguards and swimming instructors doesn’t match the demand for the facility’s use.

The empty pool represents a problem colleges and universities statewide face: not enough funding to keep facilities open.

College students from institutions across the state brought their concerns about higher education to three state legislators Monday at a higher education forum sponsored by NHCC and North Hennepin Technical College.

What should be a legislative session dealing with capital improvements for state facilities – including higher education – will instead be a time to repair an impaired biennium budget, said Rep. Peggy Leppik, R-Golden Valley.

“This will be a very difficult session,” she said.

State officials will announce Tuesday how far Minnesota will fall from expected revenues, but Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, said the state could be short anywhere from $800 million to $1.5 billion.

Gov. Jesse Ventura has requested that all state agencies, including the University, look at cutting 5 percent to 10 percent of their 2002-03 budgets.

“I hope that we can protect K-12 and higher education from these cuts,” Carlson said.

Leppik warned students higher education won’t be immune to budget cuts but will emerge less scathed than other agencies.

“I think it’s fair to say that we will be tightening our belts,” she said.

But Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, said higher education and K-12 spending comprise about half of the state’s annual $13 billion budget.

“If you want to save a billion dollars, your cuts would be disproportionate if you didn’t get some of that through education,” Kelley said.

Rother, who met with the Minnesota State College Student Association in Duluth earlier this month, said students statewide are mystified as to where their institutions could reduce spending.

“The consensus was there was nothing left to cut,” Rother said.

Eli Garcia, a first-year student at NHCC, said the predicted budget cuts worry him, his wife and two sons.

Wednesday – the day after the budget forecast announcement – will mark the one-year anniversary of a kidney transplant that ended his 10 years of working in the labor industry.

“I want to be a contributing member of society again,” Garcia told legislators. “Without an education, my status in poverty is assured.”

Another higher education forum is slated for Thursday, from 10 a.m. until noon, at NHCC in the fine arts auditorium.