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October 25, 2014

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Legal opinion buoys idea of taking control of community colleges from regents

Nevada lawmakers have authority over who oversees the state’s four community colleges, according to an opinion released today by the Legislature’s nonpartisan research arm.

Kevin Powers, chief litigation counsel for the Legislative Counsel Bureau, said the Nevada Constitution allowed state lawmakers to place the College of Southern Nevada, Great Basin College, Truckee Meadows Community College and Western Nevada College under the control of a governing body other than the state’s Board of Regents, which oversees UNLV and UNR.

The Legislative Counsel Bureau’s opinion comes as a legislative committee looks at different and perhaps better ways that community colleges can be governed and funded. Nevada and Hawaii are the only states that allow its regents to govern its universities and community colleges under the same system.

Proponents of a new governance structure allege the Board of Regents has overlooked the unique needs of community colleges. They also contend the Nevada System of Higher Education has failed to harness community colleges to secure enough federal workforce development grants to get thousands of unemployed Las Vegans back to work.

The Nevada Constitution provides for three tiers of education, Powers said. The constitution outlines lawmakers’ authority to establish a set of “common schools,” “normal schools” and “a state university.”

Powers defined “common schools” as K-12 schools, and the state university as any four-year public bachelor’s, master’s or doctoral degree-granting institution of higher education. In 1864, when the constitution was adopted, “normal schools” were two-year teachers colleges – intermediate higher-education institutions similar to today’s community colleges, Powers said.

The state constitution is explicit in calling for a University of Nevada to be governed by a board of regents, Powers said. The constitution instructs the Legislature to create “a State University which shall embrace the departments for Agriculture, Mechanic Arts, and Mining …”

However, the Board of Regents’ power stops there, Powers said. The constitution does not explicitly grant oversight of “common schools” and “normal schools” to regents.

“The Board of Regents only controls the state university,” Powers told a legislative subcommittee today. “The Legislature has the power to say who governs community colleges.”

Powers’ opinion reaffirms the bureau’s previous opinions on the matter and contradicts a 1968 attorney general opinion declaring “all tax-supported education on a college level has been entrusted to the Board of Regents of the University of Nevada by the Constitution of this State.” Proponents for a change in community college governance argue the 1968 opinion ought to be discounted because at the time the attorney general also served as legal counsel to Nevada’s higher education system.

Regardless, arguing that the authors of Nevada’s constitution used “state university” to mean all levels of higher education including community colleges would be an “unnatural and absurd interpretation,” Powers said.

Nevada’s Higher Education Chancellor Dan Klaich said he hadn’t read Powers’ opinion but said he found the 1968 opinion to be “rather compelling.”

Klaich said he favored a single governing body to oversee all higher-education institutions to ensure students could more easily transfer from community colleges to research universities.

“That can only happen in a vertically integrated higher-education system,” Klaich said. “I can’t understand how students can be benefited if we pull them apart in two separate systems.”

Klaich said he believed lawmakers ought to work on improving the current system, not dismantling it. In the end, Klaich added he believed the court system may end up deciding who has ultimate authority over community colleges.

North Las Vegas Mayor John Lee, who has championed local control of community colleges, questioned why lawmakers hadn’t heeded the recommendations of several studies that called for local governance of community colleges.

Lee said he favored a new system that would allow local governments to control community colleges with input from the university system.

“I’m not willing to rip apart everything,” Lee said. “But I concur with what LCB says. Local governments must have some authority to help community colleges move forward with community needs.”

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