MS Colleges Seek $100M For Campus Construction

Sat August 26, 2006 - Southeast Edition
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JACKSON, MS (AP) All in all, the state’s universities are falling apart.

More than $1 billion in construction, renovation and repair projects are needed on the state’s campuses, university leaders said.

Maintenance of things as routine as fire sprinklers and gas lines, repairs of 35-year-old buildings and construction of wheelchair ramps rate among the highest priorities at most of Mississippi’s universities.

“After 30 years,” said Delta State University President John Hilpert, “things get old.”

Leaders of the state’s eight universities ranked their top building priorities before a College Board committee Aug. 15. The board is expected to ask the Legislature for $100 million in next year’s session for the capital projects, though it’s anyone’s guess how much they’ll actually get. Last year, only $27 million came through.

“I don’t think $100 million is out of line,” said Rep. Cecil Brown, D-Jackson, chairman of the House Education Committee and a member of the budget writing committee. “I’m just glad they’re not asking for a billion dollars.”

Frank Alley, the state university system’s assistant commissioner of construction and physical affairs, said the eight universities have more than 500 projects on their waiting lists totaling approximately $1.2 billion.

The top 10 priorities at each university total more than $550 million, he said, with the top three at each campus totaling approximately $268 million.

Those top projects include a new law school at the University of Mississippi and a new dorm at Alcorn State University, wheelchair ramps and elevators at Jackson State University (JSU) and even fixing failing roofs at Mississippi University for Women (MUW).

“We’ve rubber-banded and bandaged these things together as much as we can,” said Nora Miller, MUW’s chief financial officer.

Board members lamented a lack of maintenance money over the years, noting that capital improvement requests should consist chiefly of major renovations, repairs and new buildings, not replacing broken air conditioners and filling in potholes.

State higher education leaders have said for years that the system has been underfunded.

Though funding has increased in each of the last two years, higher education officials say it is still below per-student levels from a decade ago.

The College Board will ask the Legislature for $931 million next year — compared to the $681 million they received this year.

Lester Newman, president of Mississippi Valley State University, said the top priority there is fixing a broken-down campus child-care center.

“We have a serious problem with our preschool,” he told the board committee.

The center, used for the children of faculty, staff and students, is falling apart and is in danger of collapsing, he said. It serves approximately 40 children daily, with approximately 20 in afterschool programs, he said.

It also is used by students in the university’s education programs.

College Board staffers pared down the $268 million list to one that tops out just below $100 million. That list serves as a recommendation to the board.

Higher Education Commissioner Thomas Meredith said the $100 million is a typical target to shoot for, but he did not rule out asking for more funding.

The top priority over all of the state’s universities is coming into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act at Jackson State, according to the staff’s rankings.

Troy Stovall, senior vice president of finance and operations of JSU, said the school has been under a court order for several years to bring its facilities into compliance.

The list of recommendations leaves off items such as a $22-million Wellness and Assembly Center at MVSU, which Newman ranked as the school’s No. 3 priority.

The list also does not include $7 million to renovate or replace the old cafeteria at the University of Southern Mississippi (USM), which recently got new dining facilities. The school’s proposal called for the old building to be turned into classrooms.

Included in the staff recommendations is $10 million for a new law school at Ole Miss, a project that Chancellor Robert Khayat said would likely cost more than $40 million. The rest would be paid for with private money. Construction is expected to start in 2008.

USM President Shelby Thames said the school is not including projects needed because of damage done by Hurricane Katrina in its requests because plans are still in the works for the university’s new facilities on the coast.

Miller, of MUW, said the university’s top priority is general repair and renovation.

“This isn’t anything glamorous,” she said. “This is just to keep us from having to make emergency repairs.”

She said renovating the library is a top priority. Though it was built in 1969, it has never been renovated.

“Our library’s almost back in style,” she said. “We’re so old it’s almost new again.”

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