Institute 3-2 vote supports a merger
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.