Locals sound off on community college strategic plan

Posted 11/27/09

“It gives the Legislature some comfort that state funds are going to be well spent,” said Bonner, who served on a steering committee for the plan, and who also is the publisher of the Powell Tribune. “The state appropriates $190 …

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Locals sound off on community college strategic plan


College plan provides good framework but leaves out important details, some say A draft strategic plan that helps identify the state's interests in Wyoming's community college system is largely positive, but fails to adequately address funding and other important issues, some say.The draft plan now is complete, and stakeholder groups have until Dec. 5 to make comments and suggestions. Rep. Dave Bonner, R-Powell, helped pass legislation requiring the commission to create the plan, and he said it accomplishes what lawmakers asked for.

“It gives the Legislature some comfort that state funds are going to be well spent,” said Bonner, who served on a steering committee for the plan, and who also is the publisher of the Powell Tribune. “The state appropriates $190 million to community colleges in the biennium, and the Legislature wants to have some more oversight over how the money is spent.”

Bonner said the plan also adds credibility to the way state funds are distributed by the college commission.

“The strategic plan is a means to move forward to a cohesive state system of community colleges, and at the same time, eliminate unnecessary redundancies.”

Dave Reetz, who served on the Community College Planning Task Force established by the Legislature in 2008, and on the governor's blue ribbon commission on community college issues in 2007, said he is pleased overall with the plan and its framework.

“I think it's a good structure to begin this new planning exercise that will help the colleges and the commission address the strategic objectives of state interests,” he said Tuesday.

He noted that the plan identifies state interests and strategic objectives to help assure that those interests are served well.

“It's got the essential elements that are needed,” he said.

But, he said, the plan as written now leaves out two important sets of voices: Those of economically disadvantaged students and those of college faculty members.

While the plan does address some help for students who are financially stressed, such as married student housing and child care, they were given a lower-priority time frame, he said.

“I felt we needed to get a stronger view to those who have difficult, constraining circumstances. Some people are laid off or have to work. How do they get affordable child care and still go to school?”

In addition, he said, “there is not any mention of how to bring students along, how to work with students, who, for whatever reason, have difficulty finishing high school.

“Twenty-five percent of our high school students do not finish in four years,” he added. “What's happening to these students? We can't just dismiss it.”

The plan also fails to adequately address the quality of programs at the colleges, Reetz said.

“There was one page out of more than 100 pages of the document devoted to quality programs,” he said. “I did not see enough emphasis on academic programs; most is on career and technical education.”

That concern also was expressed by NWC President Paul Prestwich and the NWC Board of Trustees.

In a Nov. 3 letter to Wyoming Community College Commission Director Jim Rose, Prestwich wrote, “In spite of the fact that an ‘educated citizenry' is a top priority in the list of state interests, the document — and in particular the evaluation tools for program approval and capital construction — seems to favor career technical education over transfer education.”

In a telephone interview on Tuesday, Rose stressed that the strategic plan is just an outline for a plan of action.

“The central, defining element of this plan, the first state interest, is an educated state citizenry,” he said. “We think the fundamental components would suggest it is focused toward more than work force training.”

For instance, “offering cultural programs — that's not a word you would put in if you were just worried about getting jobs for people,” he said.

Reetz said the plan also fails to address the need for instructional support to help faculty grow and develop.

“I don't remember anything here that emphasizes faculty,” he said. “If faculty read this, they would get a sense they are not very important, but, in fact, they're critical.

“It didn't talk about whether they had sufficient benefits, recruiting or retention, and what about retirement programs and other things that recognize master teaching and master teachers?”

Rose said the Wyoming Community College Commission will review comments and suggested changes to the plan at its meeting on Dec. 7.

By law, the commission then has until Jan. 5 to address those concerns and submit the final draft to the Wyoming Legislature's Joint Education and Joint Appropriations interim committees.

The completed plan then must be submitted to the Legislature before the start of the 2010 budget session in February.

Rose said the strategic plan is not an end in itself; it's a template that will be fleshed out to include step-by-step plans of action so college administrators “know what they're going to have to present in order for a program to be considered favorably by the commission.”

“Just having the strategic plan bound and distributed doesn't mean the work is over — in fact, it's just really getting started,” he added.

Reetz said he was disappointed that neither the task force, nor the plan, addressed a dedicated source of funding for the state's seven community college districts.

“It just did not happen,” he said. “I'm very disappointed that we didn't really talk about a plan and discuss long-term funding and growth needs.”

Bonner said, “I'm not at all surprised that the task force couldn't come to a decision on a new method of funding for the colleges. The state has struggled with this for a long time, and in this time of belt tightening in every area, there is no easy solution.”

Prestwich and NWC board members also said they were disappointed by the lack of action on funding issues.

In his letter to Rose, Prestwich said, “Trustees expressed a desire for more stable and predictable funding for the community colleges (and) expressed concern about the inequities in local property taxation as they relate to campuses in Albany and Campbell counties ...

“Board members recommended that an ongoing subcommittee be appointed to address funding issues on a continuous basis.”

Bonner said he favors exploring the concept of differential tax levies on property outside college districts with attendant representation on the college's governing boards.

Reetz noted that there are more demands on colleges during times of economic downturn.

“We're always at the opposite of what the economy is doing. If the economy is down, students are up,” he said. “Students look to education in those times. We've go to be strong enough to recognize that.”

Bonner said the college plan helps strengthen the argument for dedicated funding for the state's community colleges.

“You aren't going to have a credible system of funding distribution if you don't have a thoughtfully-developed, consistent and accepted framework for making those funding decisions. That's the strategic plan.”