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September 13, 2011 7:50 am

EDITORIAL: College building system should go back to the drawing board

Written by Ilene Olson

A prioritized list of 14 proposed capital construction projects for Wyoming community colleges has people at Northwest College and at other colleges around the state scratching their heads.

The Wyoming Community College Commission’s new data-driven system for prioritizing college building projects ranks an agriculture and rodeo facility for Casper College as the top priority and an equine center for Central Wyoming College as second, while many proposed classroom buildings end up near the bottom of the list.

As NWC board Trustee Rick LaPlante put it, “They’re mixing their numbers. All you need to do is prove you need classroom space, and you can have a football field.”

Northwest College’s request for funding for an academic/workforce training building is No. 11 on the list.

The system also ranks as its seventh priority a student center for the Gillette campus of the Northern Wyoming Community College District, and a residence hall expansion at Eastern Wyoming College is No. 12 on the list. Under previous restrictions, neither of those projects were likely to be considered for any state funding because they perform no educational function at the colleges.

As confusion over the comparative merits of college building requests mounted a few years ago, lawmakers said they would fund no more building projects (though a few did slip through) until a data-driven system was in place to prioritize them. 

The new system was supposed to assure that state money allocated for college building projects was spent wisely in meeting educational needs for students around the state. It’s hard to imagine that the governor or the Legislature will look at the building list and say it meets those goals adequately. 

While the new ranking system meets the Wyoming Legislature’s mandate for a data-driven system to rank building projects at the colleges, there seems to be a disconnect in the common-sense department.

The new ranking system also provides no assurance that each college has an equal chance at capital construction funding based on the merit of its proposal. Instead, it crunches square footage numbers and aligns them with population growth potential, the condition of buildings in each district and other statistics.

While those factors should be considered, they should not lock out funding for buildings for educational programs that could increase enrollment at a college and meet the needs of area businesses and industry, regardless of population growth potential.

And, by ranking projects higher for colleges with ongoing building maintenance and safety issues, the list penalizes institutions whose leaders have budgeted carefully and maintained their buildings adequately.

Concerns over the list generated by the new system prompted the seven college presidents to forward a list of their own to the commission. That list included seven building projects — one for each of the seven community college districts, each considered to be the top priority that college. That list, according to NWC Trustee Gloria Hedderman, was “dismissed out of hand” by the commission.

Of local note, Northwest College has repeatedly requested state money to construct a needed classroom building. Northwest is the only college that has received no state funding for a building project within the last decade. This list offers little hope that that will change anytime soon.

We can only hope that some glaringly-needed changes can be made to the new rating system to sort out a process that makes little sense now.

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