- Associated Press - Thursday, May 8, 2014

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Senate Finance Chairman Hugh Leatherman says South Carolina State University’s best chance of survival comes from a panel of current and former college presidents he put together.

The Senate on Thursday approved an additional clause in the state budget that directs the five-member panel to work with SC State officials in developing a plan to stabilize the school.

The state’s only public historically black university is in a financial hole. College officials sought a nearly $14 million state grant to cover the school’s bills through the end of June. Last week, the Budget and Control Board approved a $6 million loan to pay its oldest unpaid bills, as recommended by its chair, Gov. Nikki Haley. How the school will pay it back is unknown.

Leatherman cast the board’s loan no vote, saying the loan doesn’t solve anything. It’s a Band-Aid when the school needs a tourniquet, he said.

Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Hopkins, said it’s not even that.

“It was a concrete life jacket that takes them down even sooner,” he said.

Haley intended her plan as a bridge until the Legislature passes a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1. But Leatherman told her that is unrealistic, with only a month left in the session. Neither the House budget plan nor the Senate Finance proposal that is being debated on the floor this week includes any money toward SC State’s debt.

Leatherman said he’s not interested in bailing SC State out without a long-term plan for survival.

The five-member panel that will start meeting with SC State board members next week consists of University of South Carolina President Harris Pastides; former Clemson University President James Barker; former College of Charleston President Alex Sanders, who’s also a former state legislator; Francis Marion University President Luther Carter; and former Chief Justice Ernest Finney, who served as interim president of South Carolina State University in 2002-03.

Haley’s board-approved resolution requires SC State to spend up to $500,000 of the loan on financial consultants.

Leatherman said the advisory panel will do its work voluntarily. It’s expected to be a three-year effort.

“These five gentlemen know more about higher education than any group of people in the state of South Carolina,” Leatherman said. “I intend to see that we save that college. I would never, ever agree to close SC State.”

In addition to the $13.6 million the school needs to pay its bills, it agreed last month to repay $6.5 million diverted from a federal program. State Inspector General Patrick Maley found the school had diverted money meant for agriculture research to cover debts since 2007. Maley said he found no fraud, but rather a pattern of mismanagement that allowed the inappropriate practice to escalate out of control.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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