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April 28, 2011 7:47 am

College commission examines building issues

Written by Ilene Olson

Much of the discussion at a Wyoming Community College Commission meeting at Northwest College on Tuesday centered on a plan for ranking capital facilities projects among the state’s seven community college districts.

Commission Executive Director Jim Rose said the model was developed in concert with a law passed by the Legislature in 2009, which requires the commission to develop a way to prioritize capital construction requests at the college based upon the commission’s strategic plan and upon the state’s interests.

State funding for capital construction projects at community colleges has been a bit of a sore subject for NWC trustees, since Northwest College is one of only two community colleges in the state that have received no state funding for needed building projects in the last several Legislature sessions.

“There was the process (where) we did have that rotating request,” Trustee Marty Coe said during a board meeting in March, referring to an informal system in which colleges formerly took turns asking for capital construction funding.

All but Casper College and Northwest College received money for building projects through that informal arrangement — then things changed. Lawmakers put a halt to nearly all capital construction funding pending a system by which requests could be evaluated and ranked, based on documented need and how well they meet the state’s interests.

“All of a sudden, no, we have to be ready, we have to do our research,” Coe said.

Colleges now are required to submit all building proposals to the Wyoming Community College Commission. If the commission approves them, the proposals then must go through the state building evaluation and approval process. Building projects will be forwarded to the Legislature for funding consideration only if they win approval through that process, according to a bill passed in 2009.

However, that process hadn’t been completed, and lawmakers approved funding for three capital construction projects for colleges in the last two sessions — one for the Gillette Campus of Northern Wyoming Community College (formerly Sheridan College) and two for Central Wyoming Community College in Riverton. That happened despite the fact that the ranking system had not been completed, and no college building projects had been recommended for funding.

“When I first heard (that two projects were approved this year), I thought, ‘No, that’s not fair,’” said NWC Trustee Gloria Hedderman. “Then I thought, ‘Well, they’re just fighting for their college, just like we need to do.’”

NWC President Paul Prestwich told the board the building projects approved for funding during the past two sessions had dedicated local funding to match that requested of the Legislature.

Hedderman said, “If they’re funded with half local money and half state money, it’s starting to look like a trend.”

That may be the approach Northwest College will have to take to get a needed classroom building project approved, Hedderman said.

Rose said Tuesday the 2011 Legislature approved funding for two college buildings outside of the designated process.

“What took place in the session was at the election of those 90 people in the Legislature,” he said. “Once it became a legislative issue, it was out of the commission’s hands.

“What’s kind of interesting,” he continued, “is that some of the local legislative delegation spoke in favor of them, and some Northwest College trustees said that was a bit of a surprise. But the legislators were convinced it was the right thing to do.”

Rose said Tuesday’s approval of a ranking system should help prevent similar problems in the future.

“We need to make sure all the colleges are considered in a uniform appraisal rather than in a piecemeal fashion,” he said.

Prestwich said Wednesday, “I understand why those colleges did that. They had partial funding for those projects and no way to engage in the system. This process hadn’t been developed yet.”

The ranking system approved Tuesday is a step in the right direction, he said.

“It certainly gives us a good starting point, a place where we at least know, in general, how projects are going to be viewed,” he said.

Most of the scoring focuses on classroom and lab utilization and on corresponding enrollment figures to document the need for the proposed projects, Prestwich said.

That’s not to say there aren’t concerns, he added.

“We haven’t seen all of the underlying data, so we don’t know (if) this kind of system is truly going to recognize where we have needs, or where some other college has needs,” he said.

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