Wednesday, October 11, 2006 9:13 AM CDT
Beran: UAFS Formed Legally
By Amy Sherrill
TIMES RECORD � ASHERRILL@SWTIMES.COM
The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith chancellor Tuesday dismissed a state senator’s inquiry into the legality of the institution’s transformation from a community college into a four-year university.
Chancellor Paul Beran said the processes the institution went through to become a four-year university five years ago was completely legal. The question, he said, was a non-issue.
Last week, Sen. David Bisbee, R-Rogers, asked a State Department of Higher Education official to research the legislative history of UAFS’s becoming a four-year institution. Bisbee said Tuesday that he will not seek an attorney general’s opinion about the matter.
“This thing has been blown out of all proportion,” Bisbee said Tuesday in a phone interview. “As soon I asked for that, everybody went nuts. The reason they’re going nuts is they know that it is suspect.”
Bisbee added that he just wants a chronological list of events regarding the formation of UAFS. He said he doesn’t want to abolish the institution, he just wants to make sure the institution is in good standing legally.
UAFS came to Bisbee’s attention the last few months when he was driving home and saw a billboard advertisement in Rogers promoting the institution.
“What in the world is a Westark billboard doing in Rogers, Arkansas?” Bisbee asked.
He said he’s “been on a kick about the amount of money” the state is spending on advertising competitively between state-funded universities.
Beran said when he heard about Bisbee’s concern about the billboard a couple of months ago, he talked with UA System President B. Alan Sugg and decided not to include that billboard in the next marketing cycle, which begins sometime in the current fall semester. Beran said he just decided not to inflame the situation if a legislator was opposed to the advertisement.
He added, however, that there are billboards close to Carl Albert State College and he also requested that UAFS be promoted on a billboard near Northeastern State University in Oklahoma, the institution he left June 30 to come to UAFS.
On July 17, 2001, Sebastian County voters approved the repeal of the property tax supporting Westark and adopted a 0.25 percent sales and use tax to be used to support the four-year university. The Westark board was merged with the University of Arkansas board by the vote. Westark College became the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith on Jan. 1, 2002.
Beran said the important and deciding indicator that UAFS is a valid institution is that bond attorneys were willing to create bonds and lend UAFS money to build Sebastian Commons among other projects.
Bonds also were created in December 2001 to pay off $41.5 million in debt from Westark College that came from millage. The new bonds were issued mostly for transfer of that debt to the new university to be paid in part by the sales tax, said Mark Horn, vice chancellor for finance and administration at UAFS.
He added that UAFS worked with bond attorneys from Friday, Eldredge & Clark of Little Rock on the last few bond issues. Horn said that the institution was inspected as a mortgage lender would inspect a property and request an appraisal.
Bond attorneys are “looking out for the lending safety of their institutions, and they’re not going to recommend that any bonds be lent if there’s any risk whatsoever,” Beran said. “That’s a very fiscally conservative environment.”
Local legislators have e-mailed and called to offer Beran support in this recent challenge, but so far the consensus is that UAFS was created legally five years ago, Beran said. He added that from a litigious, legislative and professional perspective UAFS has “flown high above the mark of legitimacy.”
Beran said that he would be happy to work with legislators if they do in fact want to strengthen any language in the Act 1796 of 2005 although he doesn’t think that’s necessary.
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