Georgia lawmaker defends his HBCU funding bill

An African American Georgia lawmaker defended his plan Tuesday evening to create a new system to fund the state’s three public, historically black universities.

State Sen. Lester Jackson, D-Savannah, said in a telephone interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that his legislation to move Albany State, Fort Valley State and Savannah State universities from the University System of Georgia into a proposal Georgia Agricultural & Mechanical University system could result in more money for the three schools.

“I think there are a lot of people who don’t understand the bill,” Jackson said of some complaints about his plan.

Jackson’s legislation, SB 278, which he introduced earlier this year, has been criticized by several lawmakers, the latest being state Rep. Calvin Smyre, D-Columbus, the longest-serving member of the Georgia Legislature. Smyre, a Fort Valley State graduate, wrote a letter Monday outlining his concerns about Jackson’s plan to University System Chancellor Steve Wrigley. Smyre shared the letter Tuesday with the AJC.

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“Simply separating the three historically black universities off to one side, however well-intentioned it may be, is a nineteenth-century solution to twenty-first century challenges,” Smyre wrote. “The goal, instead, should be to equitably empower these institutions to be centers of excellence so that they may prepare students to become the professionals this state, nation, and world needs to move humanity forward.”

Jackson defended his decision to introduce the bill near the final days of this year’s legislative session (no vote was taken on the bill) as an opportunity to start a conversation about the future of the three schools. Community leaders have held meetings about the bill at the schools in recent weeks.

Jackson noted state funding for HBCUs has declined nationally since the Great Recession a decade ago which has resulted in enrollment declines for many of these schools. The AJC noted the funding cuts in a series last year on the state of HBCUs.

“It seems other universities get a bigger bite at the apple than HBCUs,” Jackson said.

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The Georgia Legislature and governor budgets money, about $2.4 billion this fiscal year, for general operations at the University System’s 26 schools. The Georgia Board of Regents oversees the funding. Jackson said he’s working to get data from the University System detailing how much state money has gone to the three schools in recent years. The total budget for Albany State and Fort Valley State increased, respectively, by $2 million and $4 million for the fiscal year that began July 1, state data shows. The total budget for Savannah State declined by about $4 million this fiscal year, the data shows.

Jackson said his bill would result in the three HBCUs having greater authority over its curriculum and alumni would have more input over the presidential selection process. Jackson plans to have a public hearing in Atlanta about his bill in late September and meetings with University System leaders.

The Savannah lawmaker he’s not upset about Smyre’s criticism.

“Even friends disagree,” Jackson said.