Legislature expected to consider MSU Billings science building remodel again

2012-12-17T00:15:00Z 2014-08-25T08:08:41Z Legislature expected to consider MSU Billings science building remodel againBy MARY PICKETT mpickett@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

In an organic chemistry classroom at Montana State University Billings, students work on lab tables used since the science building was constructed in 1947.

And the tables weren't even new then. They were castoffs from the old Lincoln Junior High School.

That’s not the only aging feature in the two-story brick building.

Paint flakes from pipes running overhead in some rooms.

Electrical cords powering equipment in some labs dangle from the ceiling because the rooms don’t have plug-ins at lab tables.

The fiberglass roof over a greenhouse sheltering plants used in teaching and research is peeling away. Some plants die because the watering system can’t reach every plant.

Once again, MSU Billings will have a proposal to renovate the science building go before the 2013 Montana Legislature.

The MSU Billings science building project is second on a list of priorities in Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s proposed budget. Gov.-elect Steve Bullock has yet to release his budget, which could modify Schweitzer’s fiscal plan.

Two years ago, the MSU Billings science building was part of a bonding bill with several other projects. After passing the House, it went to the Senate where it was amended, which meant it had to return to the House for approval again. On the second vote, it failed by a handful of votes.

The MSU Billings project would cost just under $15 million, the same price tag as two years ago.

The project not only would update the current two-story, 49,000-square-foot building but also build a 30,000 square-foot addition.

The latest proposal includes moving MSU Billings’ College of Allied Health Professions into the science building.

When the science building was being planned toward the end of World War II, the school, then called Eastern Montana Normal School, had 50 students, said MSU Billings Chancellor Rolf Groseth.

When the building opened, enrollment was up to about 400 and the facility taught science to elementary and secondary education students.

Now enrollment is about 5,000 students and the science program has expanded to prepare students for all kinds of science-based careers.

Having an up-to-date science building is even more important now because of the call to beef up science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, Groseth said.

With rising competition from other countries, the U.S. needs more scientists to maintain its leadership in science and technology.

Although part of the MSU Billings science building was remodeled in 1977 and some labs have been updated, the rest of the structure has not.

The university also has bought new equipment with grants, but it often doesn’t have the best place to put it.

When MSU Billings acquired a $120,000 electron microscope, the sensitive instrument needed a place with no vibration. Only one spot in the old building was found that didn’t shutter when heating and ventilation systems kicked on.

When a florescent microscope first arrived, it was placed in a small room. But when that space was needed for an office for a new faculty member, the only other available spot was a small janitor’s closet, which also is the only access to the science building’s roof. Maintenance staff still use rungs attached to the wall a few feet from the $45,000 microscope to climb onto the roof.

Classrooms and labs also are too small for the number of students taking classes there. Every year, one in seven MSU Billings students takes classes in the building.

The organic chemistry lab has only two fume hoods drawing out toxic vapors during experiments. Ideally, a lab with 20 students should have at least four hoods, so students can work in smaller groups.

A herbarium with 16,000 dried-plant species dating back to the early 20th century shares quarters with a classroom.

The dried-plant collection should have its own room so students and community members doing research don’t disturb students taking classes, said Tasneem Khaleel, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Khaleel, who began teaching biology at MSU Billings in 1976, greatly expanded the collection, which now also is available online.

As funds become available, some improvements have been made.

A couple of years ago, federal stimulus money replaced the building’s original boiler and improved the duct work.

Those improvements would be kept if the university got the go-ahead for a major overhaul.

Despite the limitations of the building, the science faculty is doing top-notch research and students are going on to dental, medical, veterinary, pharmacy and nursing schools. Others enter Ph.D. programs, become science teachers and take science-related jobs.

“With what we have, we’ve done so well, but we could do so much more,” Khaleel said.

The science building isn’t the only issue of interest to MSU Billings expected to come up in this legislative session.

The governor’s proposed budget also allots money to the university system in return for a freeze on tuition over the next two years.

Keeping college affordable for students and their families has been a key issue for the Montana Board of Regents, Groseth said.

He knows of students who have had to drop out of MSU Billings because they couldn’t afford to continue college.

“That’s a loss for our community and nation,” Groseth said.

Also in the governor’s budget is an increase in state employees’ salaries of 5 percent in each of the next two years.

That would include campus faculty and staff across the state. They had a small pay raise over the last two years – about 1 and 2 percent respectively -- but the rest of state workers haven’t had a raise since the 2009 biennium.

Even with those small pay increases, salaries have essentially stagnated for several years, said Keith Edgerton, who heads the MSU Billings Faculty Association, the faculty union.

“We’re falling farther and farther behind on the national market,” he said.

When MSU Billings has had faculty openings, they have been difficult to fill, either because very few people apply or the university isn’t able to pay a suitable candidate what he or she is willing to take the job for, Groseth said.

The university system also will ask the Legislature for more tuition assistance for students and money for financial-literacy programs to teach students basic finances, including managing student loans.

 

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