Gov. Barbour brings community college issues for consideration

By Bobby Harrison/NEMS Daily Journal

JACKSON – Gov. Haley Barbour made bold proposals regarding public school districts and the state’s universities in his plans to deal with the state’s budget problems.
But when it came to the state’s 15 community colleges, he had fewer mandates and more recommendations.
Of course, it will take the approval of the Legislature for any of Barbour’s proposals to be enacted. But still, it is startling to see in his budget proposal narrative, a 22-page document, the different approach he took toward the universities and K-12 school districts, and to the community colleges.
In proposing a consolidation of 152 school districts into 100, he said, “We cannot afford to delay this decision any longer.”
In suggesting that some of the universities be merged, he said, “We must recognize the unsustainability of dividing our limited IHL funding among eight public universities.”
But when speaking of the community colleges, he was not as forceful. “Elimination of campuses, particularly satellite campuses, must be considered,” he said, “and reducing the number of institutions from 15 to a lesser number can’t be ruled out.”
With the universities and the school districts, he offered specific proposals for the Legislature to consider. Essentially, with the community colleges, he put items on the table for debate without making specific proposals on the more controversial points.
Barbour said he and his staff strongly considered making a merger of the 15 community college campuses a necessity instead of a suggestion, but decided not to because of the importance of the two-year schools to the state’s economic recovery.
The schools are the hub of jobs training and also a less expensive higher education alternative during the current economic downturn.
He did not explain why merging universities without closing campuses to save administrative costs is different than merging community colleges without closing campuses to save administrative costs.
At any rate, Eric Clark, executive director of the state Community and Junior College Board, said it makes no sense to fix a community college system that is not broken.
“Our enrollment is booming,” Clark said. “It is going through the roof because in a recession more people come to community colleges.”
Barbour acknowledged that growth, but he make some groundbreaking, though more subtle, recommendations for the community colleges. Among them: giving more governing authority to the state Board for Community and Junior Colleges.
Currently, much of that governing authority rests with local boards from each of the 15 community college districts. The bulk of the local boards are composed of members appointed by boards of supervisors in the community college districts.
Barbour, like Clark, says the community colleges are key to the economic progress of the state, and the governor thinks a statewide governing board would help with that effort.
But both Clark and Northeast Mississippi Community College President Johnny Allen disagree with that idea.
“I think the strength of our community college system is our ability to respond not only to the state’s needs, but local needs,” said Allen. “By transferring all the authority to the state, we sacrifice that.”
Clark said the local governing boards give the communities “ownership” of the schools, which is important since a substantial portion of their funding come from the counties in each community college district.
By law, each county must assess taxes for the operation and maintenance of the community college in the district in which the county is located.
For Itawamba Community College, based in Fulton, about 30 percent of its total funding comes from local taxes, 25 percent from tuition and the rest from the state. About 10 percent of Northeast’s total funding comes from local taxes.
“The community colleges have immense local support and the governing boards are a big part of that,” Clark said.
Currently, the state board has the function of divvying out the state appropriation – about $325 million for the current year – based on enrollment.
Plus, the state board also serves a regulatory function, ensuring that the community colleges follow legislative mandates. Under the current system, the local boards do much of the day-to-day governance.
The governor also touched on another lightning rod issue as it relates to the community colleges, though he did it as a suggestion.
“As a state we must review eliminating or downsizing intercollegiate athletics at our community and junior colleges,” he said in his budget narrative. “Community and junior colleges, which reportedly spent almost $20 million on athletic programs in 2007, should prioritize what is necessary to achieve their educational goals.”
Some question where the governor got the $20 million figure. “If anything like that specific proposal is made,” Clark said, “we are open to look at numbers, but we are just starting.”
Allen said athletics is key to creating a cohesive school environment.
“Athletics help say we are a total college experience for the people who come here,” Allen said. “They can expect quality academics and expect a quality of life that athletics and other activities bring. We are not just having classes and sending people home.”
Barbour also suggested merging all of the purchasing, human resource functions and other “back room” operations for the eight universities and 15 community colleges as a way to save money.
But it has been questioned whether that would be cost-effective because of the expense of putting together the computer software to make that work.
Hank Bounds, commissioner of higher education, said it would take $20 million on the front end to merge the “back room” operations of the eight universities.

Contact Bobby Harrison at (601) 353-3119 or bobby.harrison@djournal.com.