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Legislators skeptical of plan to centralize college oversight

Posted on Saturday March 3rd 2012

By JOHN TILTON Recorder Staff – March 3, 2012 GREENFIELD — The legislative process that will determine the future of the governor’s proposed changes to the state’s community colleges is under way. However, concern surrounding the proposal has not faded as the process begins to move forward.

Gov. Deval Patrick called for stronger central oversight of the state’s 15 community colleges by consolidating budgeting and administrative decisions to Beacon Hill, stripping these powers from the local board of trustees. The governor’s goal is to bolster the role of community colleges in job growth. Under the guiding hand of the state Board of Higher Education and a jobs growth plan, the governor has said that his proposal would use the colleges as a training ground to fill nearly 120,000 job openings in Massachusetts, saving $800 million in unemployment benefits and contributing more than $500 million in new tax revenue in the process.

However, the proposal has met concern among local lawmakers as it works its way through the Joint Committee on Ways and Means. Many legislators have cited Greenfield Community College as an example of a college already addressing employment needs at the local level, and they are standing firm in a belief that what may be best for Boston might not be best for western Massachusetts. As the process moves forward, the general consensus has been that the governor has yet to provide sufficient evidence for such sweeping changes, which would strip the local trustees of many of their existing powers.

“There is not a problem here that needs to be fixed,” said Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington. Kulik is the vice chairman of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means, a legislative budget writing committee. “I did not feel that a compelling case was made by the administration to support their proposal,” said Kulik. “I’m looking for more concrete examples.” The first public hearing on the proposal took place last week, where Kulik was one of many legislators to press Patrick’s administration for answers.

Over the next six weeks, the committee will hold additional hearings on the proposal. State Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield, also sits on the committee. He said there is concern among the members of the committee, particularly surrounding the prospect of removing local control over the colleges. “Particularly in western Mass., there is concern about what would be perceived as more control in the eastern end of the state,” said Downing. Legislators outside of the committee have been watching the proposal’s progress.

Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, who sits on the Joint Committee on Higher Education has also expressed his skepticism of the proposal. “The governor is saying ‘let’s do these great things,’ but we are already doing them out here,” said Mark. “I don’t like the prospect of changing it. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

Rep. Denise Andrews, D-Orange, said she has more research to do, but at first pass there was potential for concern. “I think conceptually there are some issues,” said Andrews. “If you have good performance with an existing structure, then I would leave it alone, unless there is a compelling reason to change it. When I look at GCC, I see an excellent college that is well run, and I’m not sure if this would add any value.”

“Local control is extremely important,” said Rep. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst. “I think that the board of trustees and the president, overall, do a good job listening to the community and responding to local needs and developing programs to meet local demand.”

However, all approved of portions of the proposal. Chief among these were the appointment of a task force to investigate outdated funding formulas, making credits transferable between community colleges and four-year institutions, additional focus on the role of the community college in the work force and an additional $10 million in funding.

“I think all of the legislators are looking for ways to try to help people that don’t have a job,” said Downing. “It makes all of the sense in the world to connect those people with the positions that are open.” “This is an especially difficult conversation to have when we have not been funding public higher education at the level we ought to be,” said Downing, “especially if we are expecting those institutions to do more and take on more tasks.” Downing and Kulik said it is too soon in the process to predict what changes, if any, the committee will propose before the proposal, which is part of the governor’s budget, is sent to the floor of the House of Representatives. “I believe that something can and should come of this,” said Rosenberg, “but it needs a lot of work.”


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