EDITORIAL: Community colleges

Gov. Haley Barbour’s sweeping budget proposals for education elimination, consolidation and merger stirred a wave of public comment and response even before his plans were officially released, and nothing so far suggests any of his suggestions will become less controversial as the 2010 legislative session approaches.
His plans would merge Mississippi University for Women and Mississippi State, and Jackson State, Valley State and Alcorn State. They would push for tough accountability to justify maintaining what some would describe as unproductive degrees, departments and courses.
That’s one segment.
Another is consolidating local public school districts – merging low-performing districts with stronger districts, reducing the total from 152 to 100.
Even people open-minded about or supportive of district consolidation concede that politcal odds run against the idea.
Barbour also would dramatically change the way the state’s 15 community colleges operate, shifting governing authority away from separate boards of trustees in each college district, appointed by boards of supervisors, to a statewide board somewhat like the Board of Trustees of Institutions of Higher Learning.
In addition, Barbour proposes
– Merging purchasing, human resource functions and other “back room” operations.
– Better aligning work force training at community colleges and local K-12 school districts.
– Suggests considering merger of community colleges and possibly closing some campuses.
– Suggests considering downsizing or eliminating athletic programs.
The merger of business functions, where it is practical and more efficient, should be implemented.
Other proposals are more problematic.
First, Barbour’s idea to eliminate or reduce athletic programs sounds appealing, but athletics is a wide door for entry into community college and the path to a baccalaureate degree for many students.
The Barbour proposal for a centralized governing board faces big hurdles. The networking of community college boards, presidents, students and alumni, and by extension, county boards of supervisors, is powerful – maybe powerful enough to thwart even the most politically gifted governor in memory.
A more important consideration is how a statewide governing board would be more efficient than the district-level governing trustees. The governing boards of the 15 colleges have shown an unusual ability, working with the presidents, to respond quickly when needs are presented by the civic and business leadership of the communities they serve.
That is not to say that all community college boards are equal, but they don’t operate in the same kind of atmosphere as the IHL trustees.
Community colleges create, in effect, education where it meets the road – close to home, most easily accessible, and familiar.
Any system has weaknesses and every system is open to abuse, but in the light of day, what would be better about a statewide governing board for community colleges, whose missions are in major measure geared to their regions?
On the other side, it certainly could be argued that a statewide board would be more responsive to a governor.
We can’t argue with improving coordination for work force training as it is shown to be out of alignment, consolidating operations for efficiency and savings, or considering downsizing intercollegiate athletics, but be careful about changing governance without showing emphatically why a centralized system would be more effective.

NEMS Daily Journal