Schools, state still locked in data debate

Sunday, December 10, 2006

A year after state higher education officials ordered Southeast Missouri State University and Three Rivers Community College to annually report on the operations of their competing Bootheel education centers, the schools and the state have yet to reach agreement over what financial data must be submitted.

The two institutions submitted some data in June. At the time, state education officials instructed the two schools to report more complete information to the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education by December.

But that won't happen now because of the unresolved issues and the summer departure of Gregory Fitch, the higher education commissioner who was personally involved in all the discussions between the two schools and recommended requiring the annual reports, The coordinating board has yet to hire a new commissioner.

The two key issues in the data debate are how to account for indirect expenses associated with the Bootheel centers and what should be the baseline year for which revenue and expenses should be reported, said Dr. Robert Stein, acting deputy commissioner of the Missouri Department of Higher Education who is temporarily heading the board.

Dr. Larry Kimbrow, executive vice president and vice president of academic affairs at Three Rivers, said his school sees no reason for the annual report to use the 2004-2005 school year as the base year. Both schools shared facilities that year, though they now operate their own centers.

Comparing revenue and expenses under the past arrangement with current operations makes no sense to Kimbrow. "There is no reason to compare those two."

But Stein said in June that the goal of making both schools annually report on their Bootheel center operations is to determine whether it's efficient and effective for the schools to operate separate education centers.

Regardless, Kimbrow said, the two institutions have already decided to go their separate ways.

Southeast president Dr. Ken Dobbins said his school has no problem providing any data that the state wants. "We have always been very upfront," he said.

Dobbins said it's important to show the direct expenses associated with the centers, but that accounting for indirect expenses such as administrative costs at the main campuses would be difficult. "We have always counted only the direct costs associated with our centers," he said.

The coordinating board is scheduled to discuss the situation when it meets Thursday in Jefferson City. State education officials hope the issues can be resolved and the data reported to the board by February.

The lingering issues are just a part of the continuing battle between the two schools over the operation of the centers.

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 the university 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 Rives 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 to help cover the cost of operating the centers. The community college filed a lawsuit against Southeast. The lawsuit is pending.

Three Rivers then opened its own education centers, including centers in Malden, Sikeston and Kennett. It also holds classes at the University of Missouri Delta Center in Portageville, Mo.

On Nov. 27, state higher education officials held a conference call with officials of the two feuding schools. Stein said the parties agreed on how enrollment, financial aid for students and some other data will be calculated. That leaves the two main issues still to be resolved, he said.

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