Opinion: Clarion Call

Call. 66: Lawmakers Back UNC Bonds

To the applause of UNC leaders and amid self-congratulation, House and Senate members on Wednesday approved $3.1 billion in bonds for North Carolina’s public colleges and universities. But debate over equity and accountability continue as UNC leaders face ostensibly their biggest challenge yet – making their case to voters in November.

“It’s going to require work,” said UNC Board of Governors Chairman Ben Ruffin of the campaign already begun to ensure the proposal’s passage. “But we are accustomed to hard work. When the people know what we want to do, we feel that we will have their support.”

Members of the Joint Conference Committee on Higher Education gave their nod to the bonds on Tuesday, but not without concern over the fairness and equity in funding for the state’s historically black colleges.

The bonds set aside too little money for historically black colleges, Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, a member of the legislative black caucus, told the committee, pointing out that UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State, and East Carolina University would receive 45 percent of the bond money.

“I’m just wondering where the equity is in this,” Michaux said. “Fairness and equity is all that I’m asking for.” Michaux took those arguments to the House floor on Wednesday and was joined by several members of the black caucus.

“I don’t believe [the chancellors of the state’s historically black colleges and universities] necessarily believe that it is fair,” said Rep. Alma Adams, D-Guilford. “If they got a dollar more, it’s a dollar more than they had to begin with,” Michaux added, trying to explain why the chancellors of the state’s historically black colleges all supported the bonds.

Michaux and other black caucus members have long contended that the bond proposal sets aside too little for the state’s black colleges. However, a breakdown by campus of how the UNC bonds would be spent shows that black colleges receive a sizeable portion when considering bond spending per student. Proposed spending is $26,590 per student at Elizabeth City State, $30,000 per student at North Carolina Central University, $16,327 per student at Fayetteville State University, and $19,043 per student at Winston-Salem State University – comparable to spending per full-time student at N.C. State ($22,460), UNC-Chapel Hill ($25,100), UNC-Charlotte ($15,938) and East Carolina University ($12, 765).

A provision added to the proposal establishes a Higher Education Bond Oversight Committee charged with seeing that bond money is properly spent. However, lawmakers who supported the idea originally now question the committee’s efficacy as laid out in the current bond proposal.

“There isn’t going to be scrutiny of projects in any objective fashion because [committee members] will be handpicked by the universities and community colleges,” said Sen. Virginia Foxx, R-Watauga. “There’s no way to get the tough questions asked. We’d be better off putting the money into repair and renovations.”

“I don’t think [the proposal] is as good as what we had because we required professional people,” said Rep. Edwin McMahan, R-Mecklenburg, one of three Republicans who originally proposed the idea. McMahan had hoped for something independent of the campuses and legislature.

The bonds are a good beginning, but much work remains to be done, was the ringing message following yesterday’s vote.

“This is about 25 percent of what we ought to be doing,” said Rep. Dan Blue, D-Wake. “I think that this is a start but simply a beginning point. We ought to convince voters but also tell them we have to do more.”