Participants vent over PACT

Published 10:49 pm Thursday, March 12, 2009

MONTGOMERY — Angry and disappointed participants in the state’s prepaid college tuition plan, some with signed contracts in hand, pleaded with the board that manages the failing plan Thursday to come up with a favorable resolution.

Created in 1989, the Wallace-Folsom Prepaid Affordable College Tuition Plan lets people pay a fixed amount when a child is young in anticipation of getting tuition and fees paid at an in-state public university when they finish high school.

Now plan managers are telling the nearly 49,000 participants there might not be enough money to meet all obligations.

Emotions ranged from anger and fear to disappointment and defiance at the possibility that years of saving and sacrifice would be dashed.

“My grandson will go to college and y’all will pay for it. Y’all are going to have to pay for this, you understand?” a tense Billy Stalnaker said forcefully while raising his hand toward the five gaunt-faced board members. “Y’all get off your A-double-S and let’s get something done.”

Prattville resident Alice Chapell was among dozens to address the board during the public hearing and told them the matter is simple.

“I teach my daughter to be responsible and accountable,” said Chapell, who’s been paying into a PACT plan since her daughter was born 14 years ago. “Do what you say you’re going to do and make it work. That’s it.”

The program raises most of its funds by investing payments in the stock market and managers say it’s been hard hit by the economic downturn, rising tuition costs and a record number of children enrolled.

Until 1995, the program’s literature repeatedly said the plan “will guarantee payment” but plan officials say there has never been a guarantee in state law and that’s why the language was removed.

The program’s assets have dropped from $899 million in September 2007 to $463 million at the end of January — a 48 percent decline. State Treasurer Kay Ivey’s office administers the program and the board will hold an open meeting March 24 to decide how to handle the financial problems.

Options include adjusting the amount of tuition the program pays to colleges, getting money from the state or federal governments, or liquidating the program and returning money to parents.

Speakers made it clear they do not want their money back, especially since in many cases the initial investment would hardly cover costs for one school semester let alone all four years.

Louise Grant of Montgomery finished paying a PACT for her grandson Jelin in 1998.

“All he has heard is get your lessons, do well and your college will be waiting for you,” she said. “How can I go back and tell him you can’t go to college because the program that I paid for is out of funds? Where’s my money? I don’t want it back — I want his college education.”

Just half of the 10-member board led by Ivey attended the hearing and did not take questions or address the crowd of more than 200 people who gathered at Frazer United Methodist Church.

The lack of feedback added more frustration for those already left shocked by Ivey’s recent letter warning of the plan’s troubles but offering no clue of what options will be tried.

“I thought it was just an annual letter they send out saying everything was fine and to actually read it — I was like ‘Oh my God!’,” said Sherry Douglas, who drove two hours from Dothan to attend the hearing with her 16-year-old daughter, Ashley. “I left it for my husband to read. I was furious.”

Efforts to organize soon began as people passed around signup sheets with phone numbers and e-mail addresses and made plans to start a group on Facebook. There’s talk of a class action lawsuit if the plan’s obligations aren’t met.

“You just cannot let the government do this kind of thing,” Guntersville resident Terry Calcote said afterward. “It was a pact, that’s the bottom line. It was a pact.”