You may be wondering why the idea of an Erie County Community College popped up recently, seemingly out of nowhere. You’re not alone. It’s the same proposal that was floated and rejected in 2010 because it was an unnecessary duplication of educational resources already available as well as running the risk of locking taxpayers into substantial ongoing costs year after year, but somehow, it’s back from the dead.
Do we need a community college?
Some local proponents of the idea point out that we don’t have a community college like the ones in several other areas of Pennsylvania, which they say proves our students are underserved, but those same proponents fail to show what those other regions within the state have that compares to our local colleges and trade schools in Erie County. If a community college is all they have, it may serve a purpose, however, with the variety of schools that Erie County has already, is there any reason for the government to jump into the mix with another one? Do taxpayers want to compete with the services of other colleges and private trade schools? Should they?
Back in October, a joint grant was announced from the Erie Community Foundation, The Susan Hirt Hagen Fund for Transformational Philanthropy, and the Erie County Gaming Revenue Authority:
Empower Erie will be awarded $300,000 for an eight-month planning study. “If County Council agrees to sponsor a Community College, we stand ready to provide $3.7 million of additional support,” said Batchelor. Education correlates with poverty. In 2004, the poverty rate in the U.S. was 12.7% and 13.7% in Erie, but by 2015, the U.S. poverty rate was 13.5% and Erie’s poverty rate dramatically grew to 26.9%. “This issue is decades old and it needs a permanent and right-sized fix if our region is going to thrive,” said Batchelor.
Andre Horton, chair of Erie County Council, has been a strong advocate for increased access to education and training. “When I ran for my elected position, post-secondary education was a part of my platform,” Horton said. “A technically-focused community college will help protect and grow our traditional industries, while also creating an affordable pathway out of poverty for many.”
This grant announcement was directed specifically to Empower Erie, a nonprofit run by Ron DiNicola, who, one would assume, was promoting the idea of a community college to the foundation and offering his organization as the vehicle through which it could be realized. It’s important to note, the $3.7 million is a one time grant intended to get the college off the ground. If the county agrees to sponsor the college, all expenses going forward are on the county. An article in the Erie Times News says: “Community college costs are typically covered by the school’s local sponsor, through state funding, and student tuition.” If many of the students targeted by the college require tuition assistance (coming from where?) one leg of the funding is weak. The state currently has trouble funding public schools and it also has a looming public pension debt crisis, so how reliable will state funding be? That leaves the taxpayers of Erie County facing expenses and operating costs that will remain year after year.
This still leaves unanswered the question of “why now?” What changed? According to an article in the Erie Times News, “an infusion of cash – and a political climate shift within Erie County government” set things in motion. The infusion of cash refers to the $4 million put up by the various Erie foundations. The political climate shift reflects how four of the seven council members, Chairman Andre Horton, Councilwoman Kathy Fatica and Councilmen Jay Breneman and Fiore Leone are already on record as supporting the idea, along with County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper. Councilwoman Carol Loll opposes the college while Councilmen Kyle Foust and Edward T. DiMattio Jr plan to abstain due to potential conflicts of interest, so if the issue comes to a vote, council, at this point, would approve it and they’ve already committed Erie County to an additional $60,000 to supplement the initial grant of $300,000, just for the study.
Why the rush?
DiNicola of Empower Erie said:
“We feel we need to move with great speed,” … adding that both the community college study and a strategic plan for launching the school could be completed by the end of June. “It’s a rather elaborate research project.”
Why the rush? After six years of no attention at all, this rapid resurrection and push to move ahead might be a reflection of the “political climate” noted above. Since the political shift in Erie County, as evidenced by the recent presidential election, the hurry up and get this done could be seen as an attempt to commit the county to spending this money before any potential changes in county government occur in the upcoming 2017 local elections.
What about the Rural Regional College?
The Erie County Technical School and Corry Higher Education Council would be “community college centers,” with classrooms, technical equipment, support services and possibly their own unique programs. The other locations would be “satellite” sites, with classrooms, technical equipment and limited support services.
Courses to be offered will include general education subjects and career training. In a recent survey, potential students, employers and others listed course interests including health sciences; science, technology, engineering and math; human services; manufacturing; architecture; construction; agriculture; food; and natural resources.
Isn’t this exactly what the Erie County Community College says they intend to do? How many competing community colleges do we need? How many can taxpayers afford? Is the hurry up attitude of Empower Erie and county council an attempt to spend the money before it becomes all too obvious it’s not needed?
Maybe those grants could help us try something different
Education and training opportunities for local students are obviously important, but using taxpayer dollars to jump into an already crowded field just so you can say you did something does no one any good. The total of $4 million from our local area foundations for the feasibility study and to get the college off the ground recognizes how important educational and training resources are to our community, but why not direct that to other options we currently don’t have instead of more of the same? We need to move forward and take advantage of 21st century ideas instead of falling back on what might have worked in the past. The old ideas are already covered, what do you say we try something new?