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January 20, 2009 4:24 am

College bill heads to committee

Written by Tribune Staff

House Education Committee to hold hearings on House Bill 114

Wyoming lawmakers began taking testimony Monday afternoon about House Bill 114, which would implement many of the changes recommended by the Community College Planning Task Force in November.

The hearing on the 34-page bill is slated to continue Wednesday afternoon in the House Education Committee, after which committee Chairman Del McOmie, R-Lander, expects the committee to take action on the measure.


If HB 114 passes the Legislature, virtually all state money going to the state's seven community college districts will hinge on a strategic plan for the community college system.

The 2008 Legislature passed a bill last year calling for the plan on the recommendation of the Governor's Blue Ribbon Commission, which initially examined community college issues.

Strategic plan

The new bill strengthens requirements for the strategic plan and spells out how it would be used to justify requests for state funding for budgets, new programs and capital construction projects at the colleges.

The Wyoming Community College Commission has hired a firm, MPR Associates Inc. of Berkeley, Calif., to develop the plan.

Commission Director Jim Rose said that process already has begun. The finished report is due before the Legislature in November after reviews by college presidents, a stakeholder group and task force members.

Jack Russell of Cody, who sits on the Wyoming Community College Commission, summarized the bill for the Northwest College board last week and gave his opinions on its contents.

Russell said he agrees with a provision that would require approval of the plan by a majority of the community colleges' presidents.

While it is possible that could cause a stalemate between planners and the college presidents, Russell said that isn't likely because the planning process will provide opportunity for input from each community college district.

“College presidents feel this is their turf, and they would like first their vote on it,” he said. While some might disagree, “a majority should be able to come to an understanding.”

If they all hated the plan that came out the process, “That would be a tragedy,” he said. “We're looking for the greatest participation. I think everybody is protected unless you run into absolute obstinacy, and we're just not going to do that. I don't think we've been in that kind of a circumstance, ever.”

Northwest College President Paul Prestwich said he believes the planning process will provide ample opportunity for local input.

“I like that we have a formal role (in the plan's overall approval), but I hope that we would never get to the place where, after a year of work, we wouldn't have a strategic plan that was workable.”

College construction

The bill also outlines a process for state participation in funding capital construction projects at the colleges. That process would require buildings proposals to be reviewed by the Wyoming Community College Commission, which then would forward projects it considered of merit to the State Building Commission for consideration.

Projects approved by that commission then would go before the Legislature for possible funding. Any college building project approved for state funding would be managed by the state's Construction Management Division.

Sen. Hank Coe, R-Cody, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, said, “I truthfully feel the state is going to step up and help.”

Russell said he is pleased about the prospect of state help with college construction costs, which he felt was the most important thing that came out of the task force's work.

Prestwich said he also is pleased about the possibility of state help with building construction costs.

But he noted that it is likely that college construction projects will require a mix of state and local matching money, and there is no provision for local say on design or construction.

“I would just want for the local interests to have a say in the design approval of the process,” he said.

Reserves

The thing Russell said gives him the most heartburn is a provision that, in his opinion, micromanages colleges' use of reserve money.

The 2006 Legislature passed a provision that allowed colleges to increase their reserves to 8 percent. But HB 114 would require a percentage of money in those reserves to be spent strictly for emergency needs, such as repairing a roof that blew off or replacing a heating system that blew up.

That percentage would be equal to the percentage of money the state contributes toward the colleges' overall funding.

As a state average, that is about 60 percent, he said.

McOmie said that percentage varies from college to college, ranging from about 28-30 percent at Western Wyoming Community College in Rock Springs to about 80 percent at Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington.

Russell said some colleges planned to use reserves for projects, such as the expansion of Simpson Hall at Northwest College.

“I think all of the colleges have responded negatively (to the percentage requirement), and the commission has responded negatively,” he said. “The colleges and the commission are not always on the same page, but in this case, it seems we are.”

McOmie said limiting how reserves are spent ensures that college districts are not using state funding for projects that don't meet state interests.

“If we're giving them all this state money, and all they're doing is building reserves, maybe they don't need all this money,” he said.

Colleges can raise money at the local level to help pay for building projects, as they always have done in the past, he said.

The flip side, he added, is that bonding companies are happier if institutions have money set aside in reserves.

“(These) are the very questions that the Appropriations Committee deals with,” he said.

Balancing interests

McOmie said the bill balances well local interests with those of the state. In the past, the state provided much of the colleges' funding with no definition of what it got in return.

Coe agreed.

“I think the integraton of local control and statewide interests are well represented int he bill,” he said. “There is no effort at all in this bill, that I see, to take away local control..”

McOmie said the task force meetings proved constructive and informative.

“Basically, we found out we have wonderful community colleges in Wyoming, and found out we have one of the best-funded college systems in the United States.”

The task force is funded through 2010, and members plan to continue their work next year if legislative leaders authorize that work, he said.

Coe noted that the task force, so far, has addressed only a few of the issues it was directed to review.

“I think we have to continue,” he said.