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Committee reaches agreement on bill firing SC State trustees

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A committee of House and Senate members agreed Wednesday to a compromise on a bill firing all trustees of financially troubled South Carolina State University and replacing them with a fix-it board.

The sticking point between the chambers' versions had been who gets to appoint the board that will oversee the state's only public historically black college until summer 2018.

That difference has stalled progress for weeks on legislation that all sides called essential to South Carolina State's continued existence. After several hours of debate over two days, the joint legislative committee agreed on the seven officeholders who will choose who sits on the temporary board.

They are Gov. Nikki Haley, Superintendent Molly Spearman, Treasurer Curtis Loftis, Senate President Pro Tem Hugh Leatherman, Senate Education Committee Chairman John Courson, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian White, and Rep. Jim Merrill, Ways and Means' higher education subcommittee chairman. All are Republicans.

Both chambers are expected to approve the compromise Thursday, sending it to Haley's desk. She is expected to swiftly sign it, since she urged legislators last week to pass the bill.

The new board must be in place within a week of her signature. Under the agreement, the board will also include two nonvoting members — the head of SC State's National Alumni Association and the student government president.

The House had insisted that all five members of the Budget and Control Board make appointments. But the Senate didn't want to give appointing powers to Loftis or Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom.

In the end, senators suggested swapping Spearman for Eckstrom, who angered SC State supporters last year when he said its students can't bail the school out themselves and that they attend SC State because they can't get into other schools. His comments — which prompted loud groans from the audience — came before the financial oversight board approved lending the college $6 million to help pay overdue bills. He later said he was referring to the financial realities facing many students.

About 75 percent of SC State's students attend with the help of federal Pell Grants.

Since that bailout, the college's unpaid bills have continued to climb.

Its total debt is expected to grow to $23.5 million by mid-summer, according to a state-hired accounting firm. That includes the $6 million state loan.

SC State's financial woes stem from a yearslong drop in enrollment — partially due to changes since 2009 to Pell Grant and PLUS loan eligibility — coupled with officials' unwillingness to cut spending.

The school's accreditation has been on probation since last summer. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools will decide in June whether to keep it on probation one more year or remove its membership, which would force the school to close.

Merrill, who also sat on the compromise committee, said the legislation should help the outcome, as it shows the state cares about the school and is trying to fix it.

"They were very much receptive of the legislation," he said of SACS. "If we had not taken action, it would've been shuttered."

Amid their expected forced departure, some trustees have left on their own. Six remain on a board that's supposed to have 13 members.

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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