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Monday, June 20, 2005

By Henry Hinton

Ballard sees peril in Assembly's budget divide


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Taking a Leo Jenkins style approach, East Carolina Chancellor Steve Ballard has taken the gloves off with the General Assembly as it deliberates a state budget that may well shortchange the university’s ability to grow.

In recent years ECU has lobbied the legislature successfully for brick and mortar monies that will take the university to a higher level. The new on-campus Science and Technology building was an initiative started during the Richard Eakin administration that cost more than $25 million.

Eakin and his lieutenants originally got the planning money for the new state of the art science building and then had to fight with Raleigh to finish the project when funds got tight.

With the land cleared for the foundation to be poured, the former ECU chancellor joked that the hole in the ground off 10th Street might become known as ‘Eakin’s Folly.’ That did not happen of course and the new building is open and functioning today.

Then the legislature wrangled for several years with funding for the new Eastern North Carolina Cardiovascular Center, a joint venture with University Health Systems that required $60 million in state funds. After much debate and finger pointing the new heart hospital was put in a huge bill in 2004 that gave the necessary monies to start construction but also funded many projects statewide that had not undergone the scrutiny of the ECU request.

Now Ballard is extremely worried about the way this session of the legislature is going. Faced with huge requests statewide from public education, community colleges and the state’s university system, the legislators are again playing politics with the growth of ECU.

In short the ECU chancellor is concerned that the House budget does not provide the necessary enrollment funding to continue an initiative started at the university to reach out to the rural and economically depressed areas of eastern North Carolina. That is the kind of education that is at the heart of East Carolina’s mission, particularly in an area of the state reeling from a series of economic setbacks.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Education has recommended full funding for on-campus enrollment growth. However, it has cut $13 million from the budget for the university system for distance learning, a part of East Carolina’s enrollment that has grown steadily in recent years.

In a letter to the editor in Sunday’s Daily Reflector, Ballard points out that “Nowhere else in the UNC system is this failure to fully fund enrollment growth for distance education more noticeably detrimental than at East Carolina University.”

Ballard points out that ECU is the fastest growing of the state’s 16 universities due in no small part to the distance learning program. He also points out that East Carolina has over 50 degree programs offered through distance learning, including education and nursing curricula which are two areas with critical professional shortages.

Pointing out that this funding cut will disproportionately affect the university, Ballard says in his letter, “Failure to fully fund distance education hurts the programs at ECU the most and, yet again, minimizes the opportunities for the citizens of eastern North Carolina.”

It is a theme that has been heard before, yet state lawmakers still do not seem to get the message. The state of North Carolina does not stop at I-95, but many elected officials seem willing to give this part of the state short shrift.

Taking on the power brokers in Raleigh can be a slippery slope. Yet, Ballard seems determined to have them hear him on this and other issues affecting ECU.

East Carolina alumni should be proud that the man in charge is flexing his muscle and pointing out inequities when they arise.

Funding issues are not as exciting as sporting events, but Pirate partisans should all get behind Chancellor Ballard and demand that the General Assembly, particularly the N.C. House, continue to support enrollment funding with the same standard they have set and stuck with since 1998.

The final state budget will be negotiated in the upcoming days and weeks as conferees from the Senate and House decide what gets funded and what does not before the package is brought back to the floor for final approval. That process may take a month but some say it is possible the final budget will be presented for approval in just weeks.

Demanding that ECU grow and educate more of our young people in eastern North Carolina and then not giving the university the necessary funding is unfair and dead wrong.


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02/23/2007 10:16:24 AM

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