State board seeks more financial data; Three Rivers, SEMO argue over accuracy

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Three Rivers Community College profited from its past partnership at three Bootheel education centers while Southeast Missouri State University lost money, financial data submitted to the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education shows.

Southeast reported that it lost more than $1.1 million in the operation of its three Bootheel centers in fiscal 2005. Three Rivers reported that it made more than $342,000 during the same period from teaching classes at Southeast's centers.

But the feuding presidents of the two schools question the accuracy of their rival's numbers and even state education officials aren't certain about the real profit or loss in the operation of the three Bootheel education centers.

The coordinating board reviewed the data at its meeting Wednesday in St. Louis. The board instructed Missouri Department of Higher Education staff to work with the two schools to make sure that the data is reported the same way by both institutions.

The coordinating board directed the state's higher education department to collect financial and other data regarding the operation of Southeast's three centers in Sikeston, Malden and Kennett and Three Rivers' new centers for the fiscal year that ends June 30.

State education officials will report back to the coordinating board in December.

Separate centers

The goal, said associate commissioner Dr. Robert Stein, is to determine if it's efficient and effective for both schools to operate separate education centers.

"We don't know the answer to that," he said, adding that state education staff will analyze the data in an effort to settle that issue.

Southeast and Three Rivers had a long-standing partnership in which both schools taught classes at Southeast's Bootheel education centers in Kennett, Malden and Sikeston.

But the partnership dissolved after Southeast announced in February 2005 that it would take over teaching of all classes at the centers at the end of the spring 2005 semester.

Three Rivers accused Southeast of breaking a contractual agreement in which the community college paid rent to teach classes at the centers.

Southeast said Three Rivers wasn't paying sufficient rent. University officials said they kicked Three Rivers out of the three centers in an effort to generate more revenue to cover Southeast's costs.

Three Rivers sued Southeast. The lawsuit is pending.

The community college last fall opened its own education centers in Sikeston, Kennett, Malden, Bernie and Campbell, and also offered classes at the University of Missouri's Delta Center in Portageville.

In December, the coordinating board ordered the two schools to annually report on the operation of their competing centers.

The initial data details operations at Southeast's centers when the two schools still were partners.

Three Rivers educated 2,590 students at the three centers while Southeast provided classes for 1,473 students in fiscal 2005.

Both schools remain far apart.

Dobbins said Southeast wanted to break even in operating its three centers. The university's eviction of Three Rivers from the centers has boosted student fee revenue and reduced Southeast's financial losses, Dobbins said.

"We are looking at breaking even in about three years," he said.

But Three Rivers president Dr. John Cooper said Southeast's action amounted to a hostile takeover. Cooper blames Dobbins.

"He was after the money and after the students and after all the programs," Cooper said.

Stein compares the feud between the two schools to a divorce. "Students shouldn't be damaged because these two institutions operate out of separate households instead of the same building," he said.

Stein has been dealing with the dispute now that state higher education commissioner Gregory Fitch has announced he'll leave on June 30 to take a similar position with the state of Alabama.

Fitch spent more than a year trying to get Southeast and Poplar Bluff-based Three Rivers to settle their differences.

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