Gov. John Bel Edwards’ recent announcement that the state is pumping the brakes on new building construction, in favor of prioritizing transportation projects and repairing older buildings, has been a blow to the Louisiana Community and Technical College System.
The two-year college system, which is one of the fastest growing in the nation, has experienced explosive enrollment increases in the past few years and is in the midst of a $300 million capital infrastructure plan to build 29 new facilities for students across the state.
In 2013, the Legislature approved the ambitious construction funding program, which required a 12 percent private match for each project. Bonds already have been issued to fund the first 13 projects, which are all either under construction or complete. Among these projects is the Baton Rouge Community College transportation technology facility in the Ardendale mixed-use development, formerly referred to as the Smiley Heights campus. Edwards has said any project already under construction will be allowed to move forward.
But the remaining 16 projects — which include plans for a welding center in Baton Rouge and a new nursing and allied health building in New Orleans — are on ice.
Edwards has stressed in public remarks that the days of ribbon-cuttings for sparkling, new facilities on campuses are coming to a halt, as the state refocuses its limited dollars on the $2 billion backlog of deferred maintenance projects, including leaky roofs and broken air-conditioning units at existing buildings. He added that new buildings create additional costs in staffing, electricity bills and other maintenance costs the state just can’t afford right now.
The two-year college system’s infrastructure program was approved in a specific act of the Legislature that circumvented the state’s typical construction budget for the year. It was, at the time, a controversial move intended to expedite the process and prioritize the spending.
But the Governor’s Office said this week that the projects similarly will be stalled.
“It doesn’t mean that they’re never going to be started, but for right now, we cannot move on those projects,” said Edwards spokeswoman Shauna Sanford.
Monty Sullivan, president of the two-year system, said his concerns are twofold. First, there’s a real need for the additional room for students and there’s the louder call from industry leaders to provide workforce training.
In the past eight years, enrollment has grown 20 percent among the 13 schools in the system to about 80,000 students.
Sullivan noted that all of the buildings are focused toward providing specialized workforce training in high-demand career areas like nursing, welding, industrial technology and the petrochemical industry.
“We’ll have 500 students enrolled in a program and we’re pushing these students into temporary buildings,” Sullivan said. “This new construction will give us the first-rate space to teach this group of students and meet the workforce demands.”
The other concern is that all of these projects have private donations attached to them, as part of the requirement to meet the 12 percent match.
The first phase of projects under construction all met their private matches, which Sullivan said is a testament to how much local industries are supportive of the additional workforce training. For the ones that aren’t under construction, at least one has its full match, and the others have anywhere between 20 percent and 60 percent of their match commitments met, said Quintin Taylor, a spokesman for the system.
Sullivan said he’s concerned that if the projects are delayed too long, donors will get anxious.
“This is private industry who is putting up their money, and at some point, they’re going to be wondering, ‘Where’s the building?’ ” Sullivan said.
He said many of the donors are some of the largest industry leaders in the state. For example, Shell Motiva, Dow and Marathon provided the 12 percent match of about $1.2 million for a new building at South Central Louisiana Technical College in Morgan City that will house a petroleum technology program.
Former state Sen. Robert Adley, who is now a member of Edwards’ administration, was the sponsor of the bill in 2013 to fund the two-year college system’s construction.
Adley said in an interview that although he and the governor both believe these are “worthy projects,” he understands that it’s unrealistic to move forward with construction while the state is facing historically large back-to-back shortfalls and is struggling to fully fund critical state services.
“At this stage of the game, it doesn’t make sense to build anything right now,” he said. “People just don’t have the money to manage or maintain buildings.”