Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Ed still wants to include community colleges

CHARLESTON — The group studying the shape of higher education in West Virginia still wants to take a look at community colleges, too.

“If we are not able to include the community colleges in this Blue Ribbon Commission, we are not really meeting the governor’s charge in delivering him options on the delivery of higher education in West Virginia,” said Mirta Martin, president of Fairmont State University.

“There is duplication of efforts between the two-year institutions and the four-year colleges.”

Martin spoke Friday afternoon during a telephone conference meeting of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education.

Gov. Jim Justice established the commission last month, wanting to shore up West Virginia’s colleges and assure continued service to the communities they serve.

Inclusion of community colleges came up at the group’s first meeting, July 27. Senate President Roman Prezioso, D-Marion, brought up the issue at that point.

“How do you not include community colleges, the vocational education in public education?” Prezioso asked.

Near the beginning of Friday’s meeting, WVU President Gordon Gee said he had asked Governor’s Office representatives about the community college issue.

Gee, who led Friday’s meeting, said the Governor’s Office wants to focus on the four-year colleges for now.

“The issue we’re focused on now as a commission is the issue of the structure of higher education in this state,” Gee told commission members over the telephone.

“So what the Governor’s Office said was they prefer we move forward with the four-year institutions to begin with and as we move forward they would be happy to include the other institutions.”

Michael Farrell, a Huntington lawyer who is chairman of the Higher Education Policy Commission, urged the Governor’s Office to reconsider.

“The governor, from a political point of view, does not want to address CTC issues, but I think it is imperative that we draft a formal written request to the governor that he amend this charter to the extent that there is duplication of effort,” Farrell said.

“I am concerned that this is a major undertaking and we have limited time to do it, and if the governor is going to dismiss community and technical college issues as being beyond our charter we need to know that in August and not November.”

Justice has asked for the commission to provide recommendations by December, in advance of the annual legislative session.

“I think we can draft a formal response to the governor after this meeting,” Gee said. “I will personally take it to the governor and see if we can get that changed. “I think at the end of this meeting today, we can go back at it.”

Gee told the group that the governor has pledged to use any savings identified by the commission to reinvest in higher education.

Gee noted that such financial priorities would also, by nature, involve the Legislature.

“He said that any cost savings that is found through the work of our commission in terms of state regulations, in terms of structural changes, he would recommend that those go in support of the regional institutions,” Gee said.

“So we do have at least his commitment that the dollars saved would go in support of our regional institutions.

“I think that is very important in terms of what we’re doing. If we save money we want to make sure the money we save is put in position to make a case to the Legislature and others in support of higher education.”

The commission talked for about a half hour Friday afternoon.

Gee said the commission plans eight meetings from now to November — four by telephone and four in person. There might be interim meetings in between.

Three of the in-person meetings would be in Bridgeport in a Steptoe & Johnson law firm conference room. The fourth meeting would be near Beckley at the Tamarack arts and crafts center.

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