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Last-minute university plan raises eyebrows

Idaho State University is asking for $5 million for a project in Meridian, where the university wants to buy and renovate part of the former Jabil Circuits plant, which is now owned by the Meridian School District. Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, said the facility would allow 11th and 12th graders in the area to study health professions and related fields through dual enrollment in high school and ISU at the same time. It would also allow ISU to consolidate some of its functions in the area that now are in leased space. Sen. Stan Bastian, R-Eagle, said, “We know that we have a shortage in the area of health occupations … and I think this is a good fit for the Treasure Valley.”

The proposal came before JFAC this morning at the tail end of budget-setting. ISU wants $5 million in state general funds for the project to match another $5 million it’s getting from an unnamed foundation. The Pocatello-based university would bond for the remaining $7.5 million cost of the project, which includes buying a portion of the former Jabil plant from the Meridian district for $5.2 million, $10.2 million in renovations and $2.1 million in construction expansion.

Rep. Margaret Henbest, D-Boise, said, “A couple of years ago we dealt with a last-minute, somewhat vague proposal that dealt with commingling of foundation dollars and buildings. It ended up not being a great project.” That was the University Place project proposed by the University of Idaho in Boise, which won legislative approval but ended up collapsing in a scandal that led to the resignation of then-UI President Robert Hoover.

“So I have a lot of reluctance, without some time and examination, to jump in on this,” Henbest said.

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, asked state Board of Education fiscal officer Jeff Shinn if the state board has discussed the project. “The state Board of Ed has not discussed this project in open session,” Shinn told JFAC. Later, when Shinn briefly left the room, House Appropriations Chair Maxine Bell, R-Rupert, commented, “Perhaps he went back to the closed meeting.”

Cameron said he’s concerned about encouraging universities to go around the usual processes for getting major building projects approved. “Early on, when ISU approached me with the idea I thought it sounded like a great idea, and it does sound like a great idea,” he said. “But at the same time I have a lot of concern with the process we’ve gone through here.”

Bastian said, “I think this is a win-win situation, one for ISU to perform its health education mission, for Meridian School District and the students of the district to have this opportunity to seamlessly go from high school to a higher education institution, and therefore I support this.”

Henbest said, “Great ideas have staying power, and the rush to do something without a clear and open and public review of the details is concerning to me. There doesn’t seem to me to be any clear evidence that we have to do this this week, and we can’t do it next year with a lot more daylight shed on this proposal than we currently have. If it’s a great idea today, it’ll be a great idea next year.”


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Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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