Las Vegas Sun

September 18, 2014

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Lawmakers say no to local control of community colleges

An interim legislative committee today recommended keeping Nevada’s five community colleges under the higher education system instead of placing them under local control.

Over the objections of some business and community leaders, state lawmakers recommended implementing a “system within a system” to focus on the unique issues faced by community colleges.

Under the new approach, the Nevada System of Higher Education would create a vice chancellor position to oversee and advocate for community colleges. A new standing committee of regents and community leaders would help the schools align their programs with workforce needs.

Regents are expected to vote on creating the new committee next month.

The changes come after several studies of different governance structures for the two-year colleges, including placing them under city or county boards.

Proponents of local control argue that regents have overlooked the needs of community colleges and not helped them secure federal workforce development grants to put thousands of unemployed Las Vegans back to work.

Critics of local control argue that the centralized higher education system allows students to transfer credits more seamlessly between community colleges and universities. Nevada’s higher education chancellor, Dan Klaich, who opposed local control, vowed improvements in the governance structure.

“I think this is a significant change from before,” Klaich said. “We can improve. You have shown us a way to improve.”

More than a dozen business, political and community leaders voiced their concerns about the compromise.

Several lawmakers, including Sen. Barbara Cegavske and Assembly members Olivia Diaz and Marilyn Kirkpatrick urged the committee to continue working to find ways to make local control a reality.

“I’m done discussing stuff. I want to see some results,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s time to make some changes.”

John Gwaltney, a former president of Truckee Meadows Community College, said local control would help community colleges obtain more donations, because local businesses and leaders would have a closer connection to the campus.

“Regents say their commitment to community colleges is equal to the universities,” Gwaltney said. “However, their operations simply don’t demonstrate that.”

Representatives from Latino groups argued local control would help focus the efforts of community colleges to help minority and disadvantaged students.

Of Latino students who continue their education after high school, most end up going to a community college, but many fail to graduate, said Sylvia Lazos, an UNLV law professor.

“If we don’t help these first generation of college-going kids get through the pipeline, our economic future looks bleak,” Lazos said. “This is an economic imperative, as well as a social justice issue. Local governance would be more responsive to student needs.”

Brian McAnallen, the vice president of government affairs for the Las Vegas Metro Chamber of Commerce, was one of the more vociferous proponents of local control. He issued lukewarm support for the compromise.

“We think it is a good move,” McAnallen said. “Maybe it’s not as strong a move (as local control) but a strong step in the right direction.”

State lawmakers also approved the following recommendations:

• Draft a bill to create a state financial aid program for community college students. Nevada’s higher education leaders are seeking $5 million in state funding to provide scholarships to low-income students.

• Draft a new bill to establish a $6 million workforce development fund to help community colleges train unemployed workers.

• Draft a bill to create a $3.5 million workforce challenge grant that would be awarded to groups developing science education programs at the community colleges.

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