President of Southeast's student government conflicted over $58 million renovation project

Friday, October 29, 2010
Southeast Missouri State University student government president Katie Herring, right, writes down ideas on a poster during a committee meeting Thursday to discuss ways of getting student feedback on a possible fee increase. Various government senators attended the meeting, including first-year senator Greg Felock, upper left, Daniel Schuenemeyer, Harrison College of Business senator, right, and Michael McKeever, bottom left, College of Education senator. (Kristin Eberts)

She's conflicted.

On one side, there's the financial burden of her fellow students. On the other, the long-term interests of her university. Either way she looks at it, the ramifications will be pronounced.

At 20, Katie Herring, president of Southeast Missouri State University student government, is dealing with the biggest issue of her young political life and feeling the weight of leadership.

"I can't think of any decisions we have made that have had such potential to have such a major impact on this university," the junior said. "This is the most steadfastly I've had to think about and plan what options we have."

The university's board of regents last week approved a plan to borrow $58.2 million for a campuswide maintenance and renovation campaign. The project would include a $22.78 million upgrade of the campus' century-old Academic Hall and a nearly $18 million renovation of Magill Hall, the university's science building. The proposal also calls for nearly $10 million in deferred maintenance projects and nearly $7 million in power plant upgrades.

Student government expects to lead a campaign in the coming weeks to educate students about the renovation plan and to take student comments.

A proposal calls for raising the student general fee for maintenance and repair by $5 a credit hour. That would be on top of the $6 fee set to go into effect next school year. The financing package calls for $3.4 million per year to service the debt, with student fees covering about $2.2 million of the load. Over the course of a 30-year borrowing plan, the student share could climb into the tens of millions of dollars.

But repairs and maintenance on many of the campus' buildings, administrators say, are long overdue. That's the quandary for Herring and Southeast student government.

"I'm conflicted," Herring said. "I know it needs to happen, but at the same time I know how difficult it could be for students.

"There are lot of students who work hard to be here, relying on part-time jobs and summer work, financial aid, grants and loans. And they're doing everything they can to stay here, and I know what a big hit this would mean."

For full-time, in-state students who take 15 credits a semester, the combined fee increases would raise tuition by $150. This year, tuition, including incidental and general fees, is $208.50 per credit hour.

But something has to give, officials say. Southeast president Dr. Ken Dobbins has described Academic Hall a "crisis ready to happen," and Magill Hall, administrators say, is ill-equipped to handle the educational needs of 21st-century science students.

For disabled students like Pat Sweeney, the campus and many of its buildings are in dire need of Americans With Disabilities Act upgrades. Sweeney, a student senator representing health and human services majors, has multiple sclerosis and is going blind.

"This campus is not designed for disabled students at all," she said. "I can tell you every crack on this campus."

The renovation plan would address the university's ADA issues.

Sweeney, 49, says she supports the project, if only to save disabled students from injury.

"Luckily no one so far has been hurt, but our luck could run out," she said.

Room for compromise

The Student Senate is expected to vote on the fee increase in time for the board of regents' December meeting.

Kathy Mangels, Southeast vice president for finance and administration, said the regents ultimately have decision-making authority but value the input of student government.

There appears to be room for compromise. Administrators and student senators are discussing the possibility of phasing in any increase, and the search continues for other sources to effectively buy down the financial obligation of students.

It's the heavy lifting of measuring constituent sentiment and finding consensus that Herring finds equally daunting and exhilarating. But the public relations major said she's not trying to sell anybody on anything. As president of student government, she has no vote in the matter but does carry a good deal of influence. In that role, Herring said, she will strive to remain neutral.

"I don't want to say this decision will define my presidency, but I feel very comfortable where we're at with it and I'm proud of the senate and student government," Herring said. "I'm sure they will make the best decision for this university."

mkittle@semissourian.com

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