In­sti­tute 3-2 vote sup­ports a merger

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - NORTHWEST ARKANSAS - AZIZA MUSA

Crow­ley’s Ridge Tech­ni­cal In­sti­tute is a step closer to where it doesn’t want to be — part of its neigh­bor­ing com­mu­nity col­lege.

A day af­ter Gov. Asa Hutchin­son an­nounced two new ap­point­ments to the Crow­ley’s Ridge board — Kathy Frein and John Jor­dan — three mem­bers of that panel called a spe­cial meet­ing on a pos­si­ble merger with East Arkansas Com­mu­nity Col­lege. The board on Tues­day voted 3-2, with all of Hutchin­son’s ap­pointees sup­port­ing a merger.

“It is dirty politics at its best,” said David Brown, the in­terim pres­i­dent at Crow­ley’s Ridge. “You ap­point all the peo­ple to the board, and you get a board ma­jor­ity. And, boom, it’s over.”

The vote comes af­ter leg­is­la­tors passed Act 636 of 2017, which called for a merger of the vo­ca­tional-tech­ni­cal in­sti­tute with the two-year school if the boards for each ap­proved it. Tues­day’s vote called for a merger next Tues­day, said Fredric Smith, the chair­man of the Crow­ley’s Ridge board, who did not sup­port the move. De­tails of the merger re­main un­known.

Now, it’s in the hands of the East Arkansas Com­mu­nity Col­lege board, and that group has sup­ported a merger in the past. If that board ap­proves it, the pro­posal will go to the Arkansas Higher Ed­u­ca­tion Co­or­di­nat­ing Board.

“We were in fa­vor of a merger in that it would be much bet­ter for the whole sys­tem and the stu­dents, es­pe­cially the stu­dents at the votech,” said Bobby May, an East Arkansas Com­mu­nity Col­lege board mem­ber and the sher­iff of St. Fran­cis County.

“We feel like, based on past his­tory, that in other merg­ers, vo-techs have done much bet­ter than be­ing alone. The main thing we’re con­cerned about is the stu­dent and the stu­dent get­ting the best ed­u­ca­tion they can get and also to in­crease en­roll­ment.”

A merger would put to bed a decades-long fight over merg­ing the two schools, both of which are in For­rest City. That fight started in 1991 when leg­is­la­tors al­lowed vo­ca­tional-tech­ni­cal schools to be­come tech­ni­cal or com­mu­nity col­leges. The state’s higher ed­u­ca­tion lead­ers had re­viewed the ex­ist­ing vo­ca­tional-tech­ni­cal schools to see what each in­sti­tu­tion would have to do to make the change.

Many of the vo­ca­tional-tech­ni­cal schools sub­se­quently made the change, but Crow­ley’s Ridge didn’t.

About a decade later, the state looked at the re­main­ing vo­ca­tional-tech­ni­cal schools. In 2001, the late Sen. Jodie Ma­hony, an El Do­rado Demo­crat, took a shot at merg­ing the Crow­ley’s Ridge and East Arkansas in­sti­tu­tions, but Crow­ley’s Ridge fought it off.

Talk of a merger sur­faced again in July 2015 when Crow­ley’s Ridge’s long­time pres­i­dent, Burl Lieb­long, stepped down. And that Novem­ber, Hutchin­son pushed for a merger, say­ing one in­sti­tu­tion would be more ef­fi­cient, pro­vide stu­dents more cour­ses and ser­vices, and make it eas­ier for stu­dent trans­fers. The tech­ni­cal in­sti­tute didn’t take the hint.

At the time, the pres­i­dent’s po­si­tion and a dozen oth­ers at the Crow­ley’s Ridge school had not been filled be­cause state agen­cies — not in­clud­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions — were un­der a hir­ing freeze put into place when Hutchin­son took of­fice in 2015. Crow­ley’s Ridge Tech­ni­cal In­sti­tute is un­der the state De­part­ment of Ca­reer Ed­u­ca­tion, not the Arkansas De­part­ment of Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, so the freeze ap­plied to it.

On Aug. 1, agen­cies will no longer have to ask the gover­nor’s of­fice be­fore hir­ing em­ploy­ees.

The merger mat­ter made its way into a spe­cial leg­isla­tive ses­sion in 2016 through a bill spon­sored by Sen. Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne, and Rep. Mark Low­ery, R-Maumelle. The bill — which would have forced a merger — didn’t get far.

Crow­ley’s Ridge em­ploy­ees were pre­pared for the 2017 leg­isla­tive ses­sion. Brown, the in­terim pres­i­dent, and mar­ket­ing co­or­di­na­tor and busi­ness in­dus­try train­ing co­or­di­na­tor Tom Hol­brook showed up at ed­u­ca­tion com­mit­tee meet­ings ready to fight a merger, which was cov­ered in House Bill 1543 filed by Rep. Steve Hol­low­ell, R-For­rest City.

Brown said a merger would in­crease costs of at­ten­dance for Crow­ley’s Ridge stu­dents, take them longer to fin­ish a pro­gram and elim­i­nate a trans­porta­tion pro­gram in six coun­ties that rounds up stu­dents for class. Crow­ley’s Ridge charges an equiv­a­lent of $5 per credit hour for cour­ses that run ei­ther 37 or 53 weeks long, he said.

Smith, the Crow­ley’s Ridge board chair­man, has said he was open to a merger but he voted against it Tues­day be­cause he felt there were still a lot of un­knowns.

“What I mean by that, just in good faith, I feel like there needed to be some other ques­tions an­swered,” he said, adding that his board and tech­ni­cal school sent a list of 30 ques­tions to East Arkansas Com­mu­nity Col­lege ad­min­is­tra­tors and that board “to help us feel some of this. Even to this day, we still don’t have the an­swers.”

He felt torn, he said, be­tween a loy­alty to Crow­ley’s Ridge em­ploy­ees and stu­dents, and sup­port­ing the gover­nor’s po­si­tion on con­ser­va­tive spend­ing.

“Re­ally, my fight for the past three years has been how can we work to­gether be­cause I knew this day was com­ing,” he said.

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