Legislators question USD president on big changes at Sioux Falls center

Capitol News Bureau
KELO Pierre Capital Generic

PIERRE, S.D. (KELO) — University of South Dakota President Sheila Gestring tried to tell state lawmakers Wednesday why the Legislature wasn’t told months ago about major changes at the joint campus in Sioux Falls.

What previously was known as University Center is now called University of South Dakota Community College for Sioux Falls — although not yet on the websites of USD and the state universities system, where both still said as of Wednesday afternoon that University Center was its name..

The new community college’s focus has been moving to two-year associate degrees. In the past year, administrative personnel have been reduced about one-fourth, from 28.4 full-time equivalents to 21.9, through attrition, consolidation and shifting.

And a different mix of students is the specific target: Those who might lack confidence to pursue higher education, or are first-generation, or are place-bound by work, or need training to advance.

At least some of the challenges facing the center were in the news, albeit sporadically, since 2015, and some legislators knew pieces. But some members of the Legislature’s Government Operations and Audit Committee said they were caught by surprise at their April 24 meeting.

An April 5 news release from the state Board of Regents, whose members govern South Dakota’s public universities, didn’t reveal how much actually was changing. Read the release https://www.sdbor.edu/mediapubs/New%20Press%20Releases/040519_MOU.pdf

Many of the lawmakers on the Joint Committee on Appropriations wanted to know a lot more Wednesday too. At least 12 of the 18 House and Senate members peppered Gestring and the center’s vice president, Carmen Simone, with questions and statements during a meeting that ran more than 90 minutes.

Gestring said USD had been offering in Sioux Falls some of the programs that worked best at its main campus in Vermillion. She said that model is changing to approaches that better fit the needs of target audiences.

Representative Chris Karr, a Sioux Falls Republican, and Senator John Wiik, a Big Stone City Republican, are the appropriations panel’s co-chairs. They took their shots after Gestring, Simone and their partners at the campus, South Dakota State University President Barry Dunn and Dakota State University President Jose-Marie Griffiths, finished testifying.

Karr questioned why the changes weren’t brought to legislators’ attention during the 2019 session that ended in March. The Legislature sets the budgets for the six public universities.

“And this seems like it would be one of those kind of relevant, important things to be appropriate to bring up during session, during those scheduled opportunities. So I’m very disappointed that did not occur,” Karr said.

Wiik echoed those comments. “Yes it would be nice to learn a lot more about this a long time ago, but it’s kind of a chicken and the egg problem, I understand that. It’s where do you start and who do you start with. A lot of us in this room wish you’d have started with us, and we want to make sure that’s on the record,” he said.

Wiik continued, “But we’re glad you’re here, we’re glad the communication is opening up, we want to see more of it. I have a feeling you’re going to be back sooner than later to discuss a few of these things. And with that we’d just like to keep all of our communication open, and if there’s any other changes, please let us know, and we’ll make sure that everbody is informed. When everybody’s communicating, the world’s generally a better place.”

Senator Brock Greenfield, a Clark Republican, said he wants Auditor General Marty Guindon to review the situation. Replied Wiik: “Hesitance duly noted.”

Greenfield later said everything about the discussion was backward. “I find the whole thing frustrating. It’s not the way business should be conducted,” he said.

Monte Kramer, who is retiring September 27 as the regents’ vice president for finance and administration, watched the meeting unfold as he sat at the back of the audience area. Senator Justin Cronin, a Gettysburg Republican, said the absence of regents in the room was concerning.

Cronin called  it “a striking moment for the committee.”

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