Legislators, students weigh costs of college maintenance, construction

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Bonding project
From right, Zac Cook, 23, Lenard Wood, 20, and Tim Johnson, 18, dismantle a manual transmission at Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minn. Thursday, March 8, 2012. The students were working in the automotive technician area which is part of the transportation and emerging technologies bonding project at DCTC.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

During these tough economic times, construction and maintenance have become the talk of students, college officials and state lawmakers who oversee higher education.

The issue: Should Minnesota spend its limited money on building and modernizing facilities? Or repair and maintain the ones it has?

The transportation shop at Dakota County Technical College is where students tinker with engines, clean parts and grind studs on car bodies.

But the facilities in which they learn, just like others in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, need a multimillion-dollar upgrade.

The shop building needs remodeling so programs can use space more efficiently. Students need new lab equipment and an advanced auto-body painting system in order to be up-to-date on industry standards when they graduate.

And it's about time, said Mike Opp, dean of the college's transportation and industry program.

"Probably the last time the transportation programs have been touched with right-sizing and modernizing was 1973," he said.

Auto body area
An instructor walks through the auto body area at Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minn. Thursday, March 8, 2012. The auto body collision technology area at the college is included in the transportation bonding project, which could add improvements with everything from lighting to storage areas.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

But this is the economy of 2012, and money is limited.

In a bonding bill, Gov. Mark Dayton recommended that the state give the college system and the University of Minnesota $219 million for projects, split almost evenly. The colleges had asked for $392 million.

The tight purse has some people wondering whether colleges should just make the best of what they have.

And the most vocal of those are students.

Forget the stereotype of entitled kids looking for the slickest dorms and sports facilities. These student leaders say they just want campuses kept in good shape.

Geoff Dittberner leads a student group that recently lobbied legislators to focus more on maintenance than on new buildings and upgrades.

Their slogan: Fix It First.

"We have stories across the state of students having leaky roofs, mold in the ceiling. There are boilers on certain campuses that are well past their expiration date and running inefficiently," Dittberner said.

Storage area
A small utility access area at Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minn. has been transformed into a storage room because of the lack of space in the transportation area Thursday, March 8, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

It's not just the state of their campuses that concerns them. They say students foot part of the bill whenever there's an upgrade.

The state covers the entire cost when it comes to maintenance and repairs. But for projects that modernize and build facilities, the MnSCU system pays about a third of the debt service.

System officials estimate that students would pay an extra 35 cents per credit in tuition every year for the debt service on the proposed upgrades. That figure, however, does not include any current tuition attributable to existing debt service.

Those increases add up, Dittberner said.

"Regardless of what the tuition increase may be, whether small or large, now is not the time for us to look at getting more money out of students through tuition dollars," Dittberner said.

State Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, who sits on the House higher education committee, also sees maintenance as critical.

Paint booths
Student Ethan Merseth preps a vehicle for painting at Dakota County Technical College in Rosemount, Minn. Thursday, March 8, 2012. A proposed bonding project at MCTC would upgrade the existing paint booths in the auto body area at the college.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Pelowski said colleges should consider asking industry to help modernize the facilities that will train its next generation of workers.

Pelowski's colleague, Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter, warns against neglecting modernization. Based on current funding request levels, for example, Morrow estimates the state would have to devote all of its MnSCU bonding money to maintenance for the next 12 years just to get rid of its $650 million backlog of repair projects. Over that time, he fears, facilities would fall out of date.

Dakota County Tech President Ron Thomas sees the tradeoff:

"Is it more important to fix the leaky roof, or is it more important to fix and update your current technology area, which is going to produce workers that are going to be current, and also provide economic development for the state of Minnesota," Thomas said. "Not an easy question, and so we really need both of them."

But it's unlikely he'll get much of either.