Lawmakers cold to DSU budget hike request

DOVER — Delaware State University is asking for $22.5 million on top of the $36.3 million allocated for it in Gov. John Carney’s recommended budget.

It’s a sum that gave lawmakers pause Wednesday.

The 62 percent increase covers a range of areas, from salaries to program expansions to new equipment. Most notable in it is $9 million to raise salaries for custodial and maintenance personnel, a figure that sparked questioning from legislators in a Joint Finance Committee hearing.

“While it may look like we asked for a whole lot … the university has not asked for what their true needs really are in the past,” President Wilma Mishoe told lawmakers.

It’s virtually certain, however, Delaware State will get little — if any — of the requested additional funding. DSU, along with Delaware Technical Community College and the larger University of Delaware, were given a 1 percent increase in the governor’s proposal for the fiscal year starting July 1.

Dr. Wilma Mishoe

Although they have different needs — UD gets about as much state funding as the other two combined — the three institutions have traditionally been earmarked equal percentage increases, a practice legislators and higher-education officials have challenged at times.

Several members of JFC were skeptical Wednesday of Dr. Mishoe’s ask, with the $9 million drawing particular scrutiny. That chunk of money, one of DSU’s top priorities, would allow the university to raise the salary of 51 custodial staffers and 26 maintenance workers.

According to Dr. Mishoe, custodial workers at DSU are earning $22,000 a year, making it difficult for the university to retain them and forcing many to work multiple jobs.

But a few committee members were displeased to hear the administration has no specific plan for implementing pay increases.

“I don’t know how you come in front of a committee like this and ask for that much money without something definite,” Sen. Dave Lawson, a Marydel Republican, said, noting he cannot “sell” such a commitment of taxpayer dollars to constituents.

Sen. Harris McDowell, a Wilmington Democrat who co-chairs the 12-member body, seemed caught off guard by the overall bump the university is seeking, questioning whether students are missing out on key aspects of a quality education.

“I know they feel that they are not treated equally with the University of Delaware, and given the size of everything I don’t think that’s a practical thing, but I’m overwhelmed by the idea they would come in and say we need (62) percent more,” he said of DSU administration.

Posed a question about the impact the $22.5 million would have, Dr. Mishoe replied its absence would hinder some students but would not be crippling.

She faced more skepticism over the graduation rate, which falls well below the University of Delaware’s: 43 percent of students who entered in 2010 graduated from DSU within six years, while 83 percent in the same cohort received a degree from UD within six years.

“When you’re trying to grow the top and the roots aren’t good, the tree’s going to die,” Sen. Lawson said, using the analogy to question why Dr. Mishoe was focusing on expanding the university instead of making improvements to what it currently has.

In response, she noted DSU is trying to do both but cannot boost graduation rates overnight.

Legislators did give accolades to DSU and Dr. Mishoe, the first female president in the university’s history. University administrators painted the institution as one of the nation’s top historically black colleges and universities, boasting a strong research portfolio, and Dr. Mishoe told JFC its enrollment of 4,872 students is a record, while the retention rate is better than average both among Delaware institutions and HBCUs.

Also high on DSU’s list of needs is funding for women’s sports. Although Gov. Carney’s budget proposal contains about $352,000 for that, DSU asked lawmakers for another $290,000, which would be used to address violations of Title IX, a federal law requiring equal treatment of men and women in education.

The university, Dr. Mishoe said, is currently paying fines to the state because of its failure to properly comply with Title IX.

Among the other funding not included in Gov. Carney’s recommended budget but detailed Wednesday by university administrators is $1.2 million to match federal funding for the College of Agriculture, Sciences and Technology. Should the state fail to provide that sum, DSU might have to surrender some of the $1.2 million it expects to receive from Washington, according to Dr. Mishoe.

“In the end, we are looking to partner with state government more so than we ever have in the past,” she said.

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