- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 24, 2015

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - South Carolina State University’s acting president asked senators Tuesday to make the school “whole” by eradicating its anticipated $23.5 million debt to vendors and the state.

“We want to be made whole. We are pleading and begging and asking for assistance so we can,” W. Franklin Evans, the school’s acting president, told a Senate Finance subcommittee.

His presentation occurred one week after SC State’s trustees fired President Thomas Elzey. The Legislature is expected to fire all trustees soon. Both chambers have approved legislation doing so, though the proposals differ in who would appoint the takeover board.

Also last week, an accounting firm hired by the state predicted South Carolina’s only public historically black university will owe $23.5 million by June 30. That includes a $6 million state loan SC State is supposed to pay back before the fiscal year ends and $1.5 million the school received as part of a second bailout approved last December.

The state’s financial oversight board postponed last week deciding whether to extend the loan terms. Gov. Nikki Haley, its chairwoman, said the school’s survival depends on its leaders being willing to make deep and immediate cuts.

“You can only cut so much,” Evans said, noting the university employs 118 total people fewer than it did a year ago. It was unclear how many of the reductions were in faculty and administration.

He is asking lawmakers to forgive the state loans and provide enough money to pay overdue bills, the oldest of which dates to August 2012.

“In order for us to really be the institution we need to be - to not only just to make it over the hurdle and rough parts but to be allowed to move forward in a positive way - we need assistance in eradicating that amount,” he said.

Sens. Darrell Jackson and John Matthews, an SC State graduate, said Tuesday they support the request.

“My goal would be for the state of South Carolina to step up and cover that and give you a clean start, with a clean administration and clean board,” said Jackson, D-Columbia. From then on, he said, there would be no more excuses.

But Senate Education Chairman John Courson, who also heads Finance’s higher education panel, said the chances are “very slim” the Senate will provide that amount in its 2015-16 budget plan.

The spending plan advanced by the House earlier this month provided $4 million specifically to pay SC State’s oldest bills, but took $2.9 million away from the school in other parts of the budget.

Evans said not receiving enough to erase the debt would be devastating to the school.

But Courson, R-Columbia, said what could doom the school is loss of accreditation. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools put SC State on probation last summer and a team will visit the campus next month to check on its progress. A decision is expected in June.

The school’s fiscal woes stem from a yearslong decline in enrollment, partly due to students losing federal aid amid the Great Recession and federal changes over the past six years in eligibility for Pell grants and PLUS loans. Meanwhile, spending continued as if revenues hadn’t changed.

Just under 3,000 students attend SC State this semester, down from nearly 5,000 in 2007. Enrollment is expected to decline to 2,650 this fall, Evans said.

“We’re working hard to make it more than that but want to make sure we’re budgeting” with a realistic number, he said.

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