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Regents cull funding list for colleges, universities

WSU classroom money is at top of the list for this year's projects

LOGAN — Once a year, college and university presidents come up with their most "desperate" capital needs, which for most usually turns into disappointment after the Legislature doesn't fund their projects.

On Friday — just like last year about this time — the Utah Board of Regents, which oversees public higher education, again picked apart its own process of prioritizing building needs on nine different campuses. The setting, again, was a meeting with the State Building Board.

"These are such hard choices," said regent Jim Jardine. "This is a hard process for me to get my arms around."

That's because, as regents and higher education officials pointed out, so many variables impact the process — the age of a building, life safety issues, how fast the school is growing, the politics that go along with convincing certain lawmakers one project deserves funding over another and how long a project has been up for consideration.

Even a school's ability to raise private donations, putting larger universities at an advantage, has influenced whether one project looks more attractive to regents than another.

The so-called Q&P process used by regents to evaluate capital needs is considered the most formal or involved among all state agencies. Building Board members don't think it needs changing, despite regents' own frustrations.

"We don't view your Q&P process as being flawed at all," said Kerry Casaday, Building Board vice president.

Still, regents chose Thursday and Friday to make several changes to the Q&P list, which started with 11 projects, all ranked in priority order. Three projects were taken off the list completely, with the notion state funding would come through a different process.

The College of Eastern Utah's $16.5 million project to rebuild a fine arts center moved from sixth place to second on the regents' list.

At the end of Friday's meeting between the two boards, Weber State University's request for $20 million in state money to build new classrooms remained where it started, at the top of the list.

The presidents of Snow and Dixie State colleges both said they are "desperate" for more laboratory and classroom space. By Building Board member Steven Bankhead's estimation, those two schools should be given more consideration based on enrollment growth alone.

Dixie and Snow have grown over the past 20 years by about 3,000 students each. Over the next 20 years, Dixie is expected to grow another 80 percent and Snow's enrollment projections show a 47 percent increase.

But high percentage growth at smaller schools like those two — combined, they have fewer than 8,000 students — is not the same as at schools like Salt Lake Community College, noted Kevin Walthers, Utah System of Higher Education assistant commissioner for finance and facilities.

SLCC has gone from 5,720 full-time students in 1985 to 18,694 last year. That's a 20-year increase at SLCC of 226 percent.

But as Bankhead pointed out, most of the money each year for capital projects has gone toward even bigger but slower-growing institutions like the University of Utah, Utah State University and WSU. And typically, he added, the decision to fund those projects, which have been additions or renovations to old buildings, has been based less on growth needs.

"There's just not a chance for a new building to get funded," Bankhead said.

Decisions on whether to fund any one project should not rely too much on uncertain growth projections, cautioned Richard Kendell, state commissioner of higher education.

"Our intent is to keep a level playing field," Kendell said of the current process. He concluded after Friday's discussion that the process should be revisited in the spring.