Asking Ohio colleges to collaborate might better prioritize capital spending

Columbus Dispatch Editorial: 12/30/11

Gov. John Kasich has asked Ohio’s 37 public colleges and universities to figure out how to divvy up the state’s slim budget and submit a single wish list for campus construction and repairs.

Positioning the schools to cooperate rather than compete is astute.

University leaders are best-positioned to evaluate the hard choices that must be made, since they live with the problems daily and will have to live with the decisions long-term. And by making colleges sit down together to determine priorities, they cannot help but gain a better understanding of the needs of their sister institutions.

The governor focused the universities by giving them a tight deadline to draw up a common capital-improvements request: They have two months. The tight deadline will reduce the amount of time for politicking and make this a more straightforward task.

It reportedly took the schools a year and a half to agree on the formula they’ve been using for the past 14 years; it ensured that each school gets at least a share of the budget. Before then, politics ruled, so those with the best lobbyists could muscle their way to the biggest awards.

The governor has asked Ohio State University President E. Gordon Gee to guide the schools, which are to submit the list by mid-February. State Budget Director Tim Keen already has warned all state agencies to carefully review their capital needs and request only essential funding.

New construction, Keen wrote in a memo, will be held to “an extremely high threshold.”

Universities might have some justification for arguing that they need relief because that threshold was not so high in the past. During prosperity, the state encouraged colleges to expand; now they have more buildings to maintain.

And, to make things worse, the cash-strapped state skipped its last capital budget — one that, two years before, in 2009-10, had provided colleges and universities with $431 million.

At present, Ohio’s universities face $5 billion in backlogged maintenance projects. Ohio University, for instance, says it needs $2.5 billion over the next 20 years to keep the campus from falling apart.

The upcoming budget won’t provide nearly enough, but making the colleges confer could elicit a more-disciplined request. When colleges created lists individually, they were apt to ask for more than they expected to get, leaving state officials to try to figure out priorities.

Times have changed. Schools will need to be respectful of each others’ challenges. Ohio’s public universities and colleges already are allied, having formed the University System of Ohio in 2007 to decrease duplication and share resources. Asking them to unify over a capital budget is a logical next step.

And universities have been asking for less imposition from the state and greater freedom. This should give them the opportunity to show they can handle it.