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Millersville, Shippensburg prominent in PASSHE secession bill intro

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Under legislation introduced today, some of the 14 members of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education would be able to buy their way out of the system and become state-related institutions like Penn State.

Senate Bill 1275's primary sponsors are Sen. Tommy Tomlinson (R-6), a member of the West Chester University board of trustees, and Sen. Andy Dinniman (D-19). However, Cumberland County-based Shippensburg University and Lancaster County-based Millersville University both got considerable mention during the news conference announcing the bill, with Sen. Pat Vance (R-31) and Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R-13) both on hand to advocate for the discussion they said the bill will start.

"More people seem to be coming to the conclusion that the state system has become a straitjacket on innovation," said Smucker.

Vance said there are some big businesses near Shippensburg that need trained employees and that the university must have the flexibility to offer courses that would train those workers. Finding people to serve on the university board can be difficult when it essentially serves as a rubber stamp for the PASSHE board of governors, she said, and there should not be a repeat of "an unpleasant situation a number of years ago" when the PASSHE board selected Shippensburg's president.

"We want to help the system," Tomlinson said, noting that the concept has been talked about for years. "We also want autonomy. We want the ability to run our institution for our area, for our students."

He noted that the 20 percent support state-related universities get from the state is only a few points lower than what the PASSHE members are currently receiving and that he thinks trading those few points for more local control would be an attractive deal for some schools.

He emphasized that the proposal should be viewed as a starting point, with modifications likely as further consideration occurs. In its current form, the proposal calls for departing universities to pay back to PASSHE 70 percent of their current value over 30 years. To be eligible, a university would have to meet the following conditions.

• Have a student enrollment of more than 7,000.

• Have an unqualified audit opinion for three years.

• Have the financial ability to compensate the state for the depreciated value of its property.

• Continue to contribute to the employer share for pension obligations.

According to a news release, the university's chancellor would be required to put together a timeline in agreement with the institution's council of trustees on the transfer process. Collective bargaining agreements in place at the time of the transfer will remain in force for the term of the contract. New collective bargaining contracts would be negotiated by the university.

"Under this bill our institutions would be able to provide the resources to our sister institutions which have no other means of getting those resources," Dinniman said. "If people have a better solution to the fiscal and demographic realities, put it on the table and let the discussion begin."

PASSHE Chancellor Frank Brogan has expressed concern about the concept but nevertheless drew high praise from many speakers during the news conference, who said they value the leadership he has shown since coming to PASSHE in October.

A chart of the university operating margins averaged over the past five years shows West Chester doing best financially, at 9.44 percent, followed by Kutztown, Lock Haven, Bloomsburg, East Stroudsburg and Slippery Rock. Shippensburg is at 3.06 percent, and Millersville is at 2.53 percent. At the bottom of the pack are Cheyney at -0.80 percent, and Edinboro at 0.01 percent.

State Rep. Mike Hanna released the following statement on the proposal.

"As a member of the legislature for 20 years and a PASSHE board member since 2004, I've seen countless proposals aimed at improving higher education in Pennsylvania. Today's proposal, while I believe its authors are well-intentioned, would fail to meet that objective.

"Permitting schools to leave the state system doesn't make the school stronger, or the system stronger. The underlying issue here is that our state schools have suffered unprecedented cuts under the current administration. Secession may be a short-term fix at a time when Pennsylvania needs a long-term solution.

"The partial reorganization of systems in other states, like Virginia and Texas, serve as a crystal ball for the commonwealth. In both states, tuition increased at flagship institutions, while student services declined.

"It's important to keep our eye on the objective, which is how to best serve the students of Pennsylvania. We are blessed with incredible diversity, and we are best advised to harness that diversity to advance student opportunity by improving alignment among our postsecondary programs.

"In addition to working to restore higher education funds in the state budget, we should also focus on broadening — not limiting — Act 188 and allow institutions to share resources and coordinate programs while improving efficiencies and saving money. While we cannot treat our system with a one-size-fits-all approach, it's clear to me that we are stronger together."

Heather Stauffer

Heather Stauffer

Heather Stauffer covers Lancaster County, nonprofits, education and health care. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at heathers@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter, @StaufferCPBJ.

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