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Students, officials respond to proposed university system budget cuts
Cutbacks at state schools would mean fewer majors, seats for students
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Following Monday’s release of a proposal to shave hundreds of millions of dollars from the University System of Georgia’s budget, North Georgia College & State University and Gainesville State College communities are scrambling to rally against the unprecedented cuts.

Erroll B. Davis Jr., chancellor for the University System of Georgia, provided a detailed list of $300 million in systemwide cuts to lawmakers Monday. The proposed $300 million in spending reductions is in addition to $265 million in cuts recommended by Gov. Sonny Perdue in his fiscal year 2011 budget.

“It is clear that this budget year is nearly unprecedented in nature, and we must prioritize spending across all functions of state government,” said Jaillene Hunter, a spokeswoman with Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle’s office.

Hunter added that higher education remains an important focus and nothing in the budget is set in stone at this point.

“We are confident that the fastest way for Georgia’s economy to start humming again is to first pass a balanced budget that creates the right environment for businesses to grow. ... We are hopeful that cuts to education will not be extremely severe,” she added.

The news hit hard at NGCSU, which proposed eliminating 20 percent of its course offerings and some graduate level programs to meet $4.2 million in cuts. In effect, the college would lose 39 faculty positions in the move that would affect about 900 student, said Kate Maine, director of university relations for North Georgia.

“That will limit our capacity to serve students,” Maine said in a phone interview Tuesday. “Right now, because we have already accepted most of our incoming freshman class, it would primarily affect transfer students.”

With a significant drop in available courses, the cuts would also make it difficult for enrolled students to meet their major requirements on time.

In the plan, master’s degree programs to be cut include two nursing programs, the history program, the music program, and Master of Education and Master of Arts in Teaching programs for special education. Some undergraduate teacher education offerings also would be cut, according to a college news release.

Several master’s degree nursing students work for the on-campus Appalachian Nurse Practitioner clinic, which last year served more than 4,000 low-income residents in Northeast Georgia, Maine said.

“It doesn’t just have an effect now but a long-term effect on the communities served by the people we’re educating, the future workforce,” she said.

And with fewer course offerings, there is a some fear among students that they will not complete required classes on time for graduation.

“There’s a realistic possibility that students won’t have classes to graduate, majors could be eliminated and graduate level courses could be wiped away,” said Martin Erbele, Student Government Association president. Along with SGA representatives from across the state, Erbele is working to convince legislators to find another way to cut spending. Students are working to flood legislators with e-mails and plan to rally at the Capitol steps Wednesday, March 10 and March 15.

“I don’t want students to get disheartened with the fact that this is something that already is going to be a reality,” he said. “That’s not the mind frame we need to be in. This is far from finalized. There has to be a call to awareness and call to action.”

Both Erbele and Maine stressed to students and personnel that the proposal was just that — a proposal. Lawmakers will meet Wednesday for a budget hearing to further address the cuts.

“We are hopeful that legislators will understand the impact cuts will have if higher education has to absorb them,” Maine said.

Gainesville State College faced its own challenges in meeting a possible $3.3 million drop in funds, including leaving 28 full-time faculty slots unfilled. As many as 6,000 students will be affected by the move, which would eliminate 252 course offerings. Also, the college would eliminate 50 percent of its student workers, leaving only federal work-study slots open to qualifying students.

The cuts would deal a devastating blow to the college, said Ainta Turlington, associate professor in English.

“We are already faced with some of the lowest faculty salaries among our peer institutions and the lowest number of staff relative to student enrollment,” wrote Turlington in an e-mail Tuesday. “Eliminating faculty and staff positions will cause serious reductions in the number of course selections we can offer, will hurt students’ ability to graduate on time and impact student enrollment, which will limit our tuition income, putting us even further behind.”

The school also may eliminate its summer Steps-To-College program, which provides early intervention to high school students who speak English as a second language.

However, no layoffs are proposed for the school, which has campuses in Oakwood, Oconee County and Winder.

Stirring up much controversy both on campus and off is the proposal to shut down operations of the college’s swimming facility on the Oakwood campus.

The Olympic-sized swimming pool is used by students, school personnel and community members who donate to the school’s foundation.

For Claire Dunn and her husband, news of the pool’s potential closing came as a shock when she arrived Saturday to swim her daily laps.

“I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “We are just so shocked that they would even consider closing a facility that offers the best form of exercise.”

Dunn, a teacher at Spouts Springs Elementary, has been swimming at the pool for 14 years and said in these economic times, taking away a source of exercise and stress-relief is a bad move by lawmakers.

“I’m a teacher and our salaries are declining with furloughs and percentage cuts to our pay,” she said. “But you can’t take away every bit of quality of life that adds to people’s mental and physical well-being. You can’t just strip all of that away.”

Lauren Blais, a journalism student and editor of the Oakwood campus’ weekly newspaper The Compass, said many have contacted her to sound off about the proposal.

“It’s not just students who work at the pool and use it,” she said. “It’s community members. Some people are saying that swimming pool is my livelihood, not just students but alumni, too.”

Because there are few alternatives for public pools in the Gainesville area, Dunn said she would have to travel 30 minutes to North Hall’s YMCA facility or queue up to swim at the Frances Meadows Aquatic and Community Center pool, which is often crowded.

“They’re gonna regret this if they get rid of this,” she said. “It’s a known fact that physical fitness helps people mentally and physically, and in times when everybody is going through terrible mental stress, this is something they’re taking away that helps to alleviate that in a lot of people.”

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