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Regents discussing consolidating schools
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ATLANTA - A University System of Georgia proposal would merge eight college campuses across the state into four to save money, a state lawmaker said Wednesday.

Rep. Mark Hatfield, a Republican from Waycross, said the proposed consolidations involve merging Waycross College with South Georgia College in Douglas; Augusta State College with the Georgia Health Sciences University; Middle Georgia College with Macon State College; and Gainesville College with North Georgia College & State University.

Hatfield said he was told about the possible mergers by Chancellor Henry "Hank" Huckaby and Board of Regents chairman Ben Tarbutton on Wednesday in a meeting at Waycross College.

Huckaby is expected to make an official announcement Friday, and the regents are expected to discuss the proposal at a meeting next week.

University system spokesman John Millsaps and several regents declined comment.

"We will be talking about it next week. For me to offer other comment would be inappropriate," said regent Willis Potts.

The proposed mergers were first reported by the Waycross Journal-Herald. Hatfield joined city and county officials, along with Waycross College interim President Ellen Wilson for a press conference Wednesday afternoon after their meeting with Huckaby and Tarbutton to talk about the proposed list.

The university system began a study this fall to determine whether 35-campus system should shrink the number of institutions it runs to help cut administrative costs. The state Board of Regents agreed on a set of principles in November that include avoiding duplicating programs, improving access to classes in rural areas and cutting back on administrative positions.

Even if the mergers are approved next week, officials said it could be another year before any changes are made. Huckaby has urged campus communities not to panic but that hasn't stopped Tarbutton and other board members from being flooded with questions over the possible mergers and how they would affect colleges across the state.

Hatfield, who serves on the House Higher Education Committee and the House Appropriations Committee, said he was blindsided by the news.

"I'm just flabbergasted by the whole thing," he said in a phone interview with The Associated Press on Wednesday night. "That's a monumental decision and you're going to roll that out a week before you vote on it?"

Huckaby told Waycross officials there will be job losses from the mergers, Hatfield said.

Attempts to consolidate universities could face opposition from other state legislators in affected districts, who are typically big boosters for their local campuses. The universities are seen as a source of jobs as well points of local pride.

In 2009, a Republican state senator initiated a push to merge historically black colleges in Savannah and Albany with nearby schools that are predominantly white. The plan never moved forward, amid opposition from the legislative black caucus.

There are no historically black institutions on the proposed list of mergers.

Consolidation would mark a change in direction for Georgia's public college system, which has added many new institutions since it was founded in the 1930's. Enrollment at the schools has also been rising while state support has fallen amid steep budget cuts, leading to large tuition increases even as HOPE scholarship benefits were cut back.

The consolidation study is among the first initiatives Huckaby introduced after he was named head of the university system in May. The former state lawmaker and longtime university administrator was charged with repairing the tense relationship between the Board of Regents and state lawmakers, partly due to a perception that the university system wasn't doing enough to cut back spending as the state economy tanked.

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