The University of Maine System is asking lawmakers for $28.4 million in additional funding over the next 18 months. The total includes funds to lower by one-third the credit-hour cost of community college courses taken in the university system.
The main thrust of the requested spending package is to broaden access to the university system financially, physically and electronically.
The package includes $8.4 million in onetime spending to renovate satellite facilities and campuses of the system, such as University College of Bangor and a new center in Houlton.
The package also asks for $10 million to improve the university system’s library and distance-learning systems to better connect them to public libraries and schools around the state. And the package requests $6 million for salaries to bring certain system employees up to par with state employees who perform similar work.
Chancellor Terrence MacTaggart has asked Gov. Angus King to include the increased funding in the supplemental budget King is preparing for the legislative session that begins Jan. 5. When lawmakers convene, they will have an extra $250.2 million in revenue that was not anticipated when the two-year state budget was approved last spring.
The university system request includes $4 million of ongoing funding to lower the cost of community college courses to $68 per credit hour, which is the cost of the classes if taken at one of the state’s technical colleges. In the university system, the cost ranges from $101 to $129 depending on the campus.
Students shouldn’t have to choose between community college classes in the university system or at the technical colleges based on price, said Rep. Michael Brennan, D-Portland, chairman of the Legislature’s Education Committee.
“Anything that increases the attractiveness of those kinds of schools is a positive,” said Sen. Robert Murray, D-Bangor, an Education Committee member. “Maine tends to have higher than average educational costs.”
Nationally the average cost per credit hour for a community college course is less than $45.
However, Sen. Mary Small, R-Bath, who also serves on the Education Committee, said that while “education costs are exorbitant … I’d rather see more needs-based aid, regardless of whether [the student] is going to a community college, a technical college, the university or Harvard.”
The governor has not finalized the supplemental budget, according to Dennis Bailey, King’s spokesman.
Even if the items are not included, there are individual bills ready to be submitted by legislators for the coming session.
The $10 million for the library system and distance-learning network has two components: $3 million in continuing increased funding and $7 million in onetime investments.
“We’re migrating and upgrading away from interactive television and moving toward more of an Internet base,” MacTaggart said. This means the university would be more easily linked statewide to computers at schools and libraries.
The improvements also would let the university system provide the public with access to specialized online journals. Another thrust is to improve computer literacy of students within the university system.
The $6 million for salaries is to bring nonfaculty employees up to the same pay level as state employees performing similar work. University employees are facing a sharp increase in health insurance premiums.
“The goal is to make up the difference in increased health insurance costs,” said Sen. Mary Cathcart, D-Orono. “It’s only fair.”
The $8.4 million in requested capital spending is to be spread across six projects. Rapidly increasing enrollment at some of the sites means facilities are “bursting at the seams,” MacTaggart said.
University College of Bangor would get $1.5 million. Part of the money would go for converting Bangor Hall, an aging building housing classrooms, into a welcome and administration center.
In Houlton, as part of the community college initiative, $2 million would be spent on renovating a vacant supermarket.
At the University of Maine at Fort Kent, $1 million will be used to add a second story to the planned Center for Rural Health Sciences, on which construction will begin in the spring, to house a Northern Aroostook Technology Center.
The largest portion of the money, $3.5 million, would go to the Lewiston-Auburn campus of the University of Southern Maine. The campus’s main building is a converted indoor tennis court and in need of renovations.
In Calais, $250,000 would be used to convert and equip a large commercial space for educational uses. The new center will replace an undersized facility that cannot be expanded, according to MacTaggart.
The final portion of the money, $150,000, would go for expanding an elder hostel program, known as Senior College, at the University of Southern Maine.