HB 1692: a sure way to ‘mess up’ the university system

In his State of the State address, and at the reprise of it at the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce’s recent breakfast forum, four-term Gov. John Lynch highlighted the reputation of New Hampshire as the best state in which to raise children, safest state and state with an admirable unemployment rate and high school dropout rate.He attributed this to a fine balance of policies and economic conditions, and urged his audience of legislators in the first instance and businesspeople in the second, to “not mess it up.”The New Hampshire Legislature, on the other hand, appears intent on changing so many things that seem to work, that it is in danger of indeed “messing it up.”Prime among these efforts, at least in the House, has been an evident ambivalence, perhaps outright hostility, to public education on various levels.Last year, in its budget, the Legislature eliminated all scholarship aid under the “Unique” scholarship program to New Hampshire students attending both private and public institutions of higher education, making New Hampshire the only state without a state-sponsored scholarship program.Additionally, it severely cut aid to the Community College System of New Hampshire, a gem in terms of entry-level higher education and job training, and notably, to the University System of New Hampshire, whose budget was cut 48 percent, when New Hampshire state aid to higher education already was 50th in the nation.In terms of elementary and secondary education, the Legislature has entertained proposals on vouchers, tax credits for those funding private schools and other proposals that would deprive public education of the meager funds already provided by the state.In addition, the various proposals for constitutional amendments to reverse the “Claremont lawsuit decisions” have various degrees of problems, ranging from an arguably defensible state targeting of aid under amendments that recognize the state’s obligation to provide funding, to the House leadership-preferred plan that would recognize no such obligation and give complete discretion to the Legislature in terms of providing aid to local school districts, no matter what their situation or need.One particularly problematic proposal is House Bill 1692, which was sponsored by much of the Republican leadership, passed the House in an initial consideration and was headed to the House Finance Committee because of its fiscal implications.The bill would do a number of unwise and inexplicable things, including eliminating the position of chancellor of the University System of New Hampshire, reducing the number of trustees, especially those representing the alumni of UNH, reducing the size of the system office to 12 employees, and otherwise interfering with the administration of the system that is entrusted to its hard-working board.As originally drafted, these changes would have been effective July 1, but the committee amended it to be effective in 2013. No matter when effective, the bill is a bad idea.*****Fundamentally problematic is the fact that the board of trustees, charged with operating the university system (which is NOT a state agency but a state-created instrumentality with its own governing system) already is looking at ways to reduce the size of central administration and give the individual institutions more autonomy so they can be competitive in the present world of higher education.For the Legislature to micromanage the administration is bad precedent, bad administration and inconsistent both with the historic roles of the board and the Legislature and is based on inaccurate “facts.”It is also problematic because if the Legislature is able to manage the affairs of the institutions of higher education in this way, what is to prevent it from eliminating programs, dictating what should be taught in various classes or otherwise threatening the academic independence of the schools?The University System of New Hampshire has the lowest relative administrative costs of the public higher education systems in New England, and is working to make them lower.Roughly two-thirds of the income comes from tuition, fees, room and board. In addition to that, income on investments, grants and other non-public revenue adds substantially to income so that the money provided by the state is 6 percent of the support of these allegedly “public” institutions.Perhaps the number of alumni trustees should increase to reflect the amount the users of the service provide, not be decreased.According to the fiscal note on HB 1692, enacting it actually would cost $12.25 million more than the present arrangement because of the need to duplicate services at each campus for benefit administration, legal services, human resources administration, financial management, outreach and other coordinated services provided by the system.The Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire is on record opposing HB 1692, and businesspeople, parents, alumni and thinking citizens of New Hampshire should join in this opposition.Rather than view public education in New Hampshire as an enemy, the state, especially through its elected officials, should treasure it, recognize it for the valuable resource it represents, and fund it.Brad Cook, a shareholder in the Manchester law firm of Sheehan Phinney Bass + Green, heads its government relations and estate planning groups. He also serves as secretary of the Business and Industry Association of New Hampshire.