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Thursday, May 10, 2007

NCCU law school may get extra $2.5M

North Carolina Central University's law school is in line to receive an extra $2.5 million from the state this year, if the budget being debated in the General Assembly holds.

The money would help the school deal with enrollment growth and reduce its current reliance on federal grant money to pay many members of its support staff, NCCU law dean Raymond Pierce said Wednesday.

Federal grants accounted for about 30 percent of the law school's roughly $12 million operating budget last year, a percentage share that ABA officials criticized because the school might be forced to cut support jobs during a period of rising enrollment if it were to lose those grants.

But with the $2.5 million allocation and the proceeds of a $1,000 tuition increase, the school should be able to change that, Pierce said.

"We're not going to be able to move everybody off grants onto state dollars, but we'll be able to move enough to satisfy the ABA," Pierce said.

The push for the state allocation, and the tuition increase, began last year after the school received a letter from the ABA's accreditation team. The bar inspects the law school's programs and facilities once every seven years.

ABA pressure following an earlier accreditation review contributed to NCCU's decision to build the Turner Law Building, the law school's new headquarters off South Alston Avenue. This time, inspectors fretted about the stability of the law school's funding.

Over the winter, NCCU and UNC system officials responded by coming up with the plan to request both a tuition increase and extra money from the General Assembly. That came, according to UNC system documents, after they discarded the idea of using tuition alone.

At one point, officials pondered raising the school's tuition by $6,000 for new students and $3,000 for existing students. But they concluded that that wouldn't jibe with the school's mission or the system's desire for "reasonable tuition increases."

The UNC Board of Governors signed off on the plan, including the budget request, over the winter. Gov. Mike Easley, an NCCU law alumnus, supported the idea in his budget proposal even though he stopped short of going along with the full amount.

Still another NCCU law alumnus, state Rep. Mickey Michaux, D-Durham, senior chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, pushed for the money once budget deliberations began in the House chamber. The full $2.5 million appeared as a line item in the preliminary draft of the House budget released on Monday.

So far, the request has encountered smooth sailing in the chamber. "No one seemed to have any problems with that," said state Rep. Larry Hall, D-Durham.

There was some grumbling about "pork" from outside the General Assembly when a list of potential budget earmarks that included the law school money leaked out of the advance deliberations, but even some of the UNC system's usual critics are holding their fire.

"If it's to comply with accreditation requirements, if it truly is, that is an existing state asset," said John Hood, president of the Raleigh-based John Locke Foundation. "Pork has to be in some way distinguishable from other things. One useful definition would be a project that has almost entirely local effects and yet is funded by a higher level of government. [The law school is] not a Durham institution, it's a state institution."

Hood added that his colleagues at the foundation would likely regard NCCU -- which he called a commuter school that serves many students who work full-time -- as "a more efficient conveyor of legal education" than some other institutions.

The school's plan, if the money comes through, is to shift some of its grant funding into other initiatives, including an effort to build ties with NCCU's push to develop expertise in biotechnology, UNC system documents say.

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