by Shawn Gainer
CHARLESTON -- Despite vehement opposition from delegates who have colleges with community college components in their districts, the House version of the much debated Higher Education Bill passed by a 76-20 vote Friday.
The Senate has passed its own version of the bill. If differences in the two versions are ironed out in a conference committee, the governor's signature will make it law.
The bill proposes an extensive overhaul of the state's higher education system, including moving away from enrollment-based funding, creating a single policy board for governance, and provisions for separating some community colleges from parent institutions.
The community college reorganization provisions drew fire from delegates from Marion and Kanawha counties, as well as Del. Arley Johnson, D-Cabell. All three counties contain colleges that would be affected by the reorganization plan.
In the Senate version, transition teams would study community colleges for a year to determine whether they are meeting goals. Then a statewide policy board would determine whether to retain the same structure. In the House version, community colleges within Fairmont State College and Shepherd College would be separately accredited but administratively linked.
The plan is opposed by the FSC administration and some students who believe the college has built well integrated two- and four-year programs and can best accomplish workforce training goals with its current organization.
Marion delegates viciously attacked the bill before the House vote.
"I would like you to remember that we legislators live and die by the pieces," said Del. A. James Manchin, referring to a comment by Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, in which Doyle asked delegates to consider sections of the bill in the context of the overall goals.
"When something in our districts is attacked, we feel like jealous parents, and that's how I feel about FSC," Manchin continued.
Manchin asked Doyle what would happen to FSC. Doyle replied that under the House bill, FSC would be able to keep its more academic two-year programs.
Delegates Michael Caputo, D-Marion and Paul Prunty, D-Marion, argued against the bill on the basis of projected costs. Among consultant's recommendations that formed the basis of the bill was a 4 percent increase in higher education funding. In the bill, funding increases reflect the annual percentage growth in the state budget.
"We're scraping around for dimes and we're going to get $120 million for higher education,?" Caputo said.
Prunty took the same tack, saying there is currently a $12- million shortfall in the state budget.
Doyle said it could be done without a tax increase if the economy grows modestly and legislators find expenditures that could be moved to higher education.
While opponents were concerned with stopping organizational changes to colleges in their districts, supporters said the changes are necessary to help the state's workforce become economically competitive. Doyle said West Virginia currently ranks 50th among states in percentage of adults with college education, 49th in per capita income while sliding toward 50th, as well as having a low college attendance rate.
Doyle and other supporters, such as House Education Chairman Larry Mezzatesta, D-Hampshire, and Senate Education Chairman Lloyd Jackson, D-Lincoln, believe the bill would make workforce training more readily available.
"We don't have the jobs because we don't have the educated workforce," Doyle said. "We don't have the educated workforce because those with degrees leave to get the jobs, and we have to do something dramatic to change that."
Caputo, Prunty and Manchin voted against the bill, as did Del. Tom Coleman, D-Taylor. Among Harrison County delegates, Frank Angotti, Jr., Larry Linch and Barbara Warner, all Democrats, voted against the bill also.
Area delegates who voted for the Higher Education Bill include: Sam Cann, D-Harrison, Barbara Fleischauer, Nancy Houston and Charlene Marshall; all Monongalia County Democrats, Joe Mattaliano, D-Barbour, Doug Stalnaker, R-Lewis, and House Majority Leader Joe Martin, D-Randolph.