Statehouse roundup, 1.26.22: Community colleges make their budget pitch

Currently, the College of Western Idaho offers 40% of its classes online or in a hybrid format. CWI hopes to increase that number to 90%, and new President Gordon Jones says the school can shift to online instruction while making sure its students still learn by doing. “I think it absolutely can be done.” Kyle Pfannenstiel/Idaho EdNews

Idaho’s community colleges serve distinct geographic areas — but some of their financial needs cut across lines on a map.

At the Statehouse Wednesday, the presidents of the four community colleges talked about the challenges they face in hiring and keeping staff. Several also used their time before the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to pitch for building projects on Gov. Brad Little’s budget wish list.

Little has recommended putting $54.3 million of state dollars into community colleges — which also receive a significant share of their money from local property taxes and student fees. The $54.3 million request represents a 4.8% increase.

Little’s budget includes a 5% pay raise for community college employees. But the state doesn’t fully fund pay raises in higher education, leaving colleges and universities to come up with the balance.

For example, the College of Western Idaho stands to receive $599,500 from the state for pay raises. But in order to offer 5% raises, CWI would have to come up with an additional $900,000, new President Gordon Jones told JFAC.

College of Southern Idaho President Dean Fisher stressed the need for higher pay. When Idaho’s K-12 teachers earn $53,100 on average, Fisher said he is hard pressed to hire instructors at $46,000 or $47,000 a year.

Retention is another challenge. At the College of Eastern Idaho, the turnover rate is running at 20%, President Rick Aman told JFAC.

Three of the state’s four community colleges are in line to get state money for building projects — through a separate budget request to fund construction across the state.

North Idaho College would receive $3.3 million for an aviation apprenticeship lab and a renovation project for a new community center. CWI would receive $10 million towards a long-planned health sciences building. CEI’s $10 million would go toward Future Tech, which would house energy, environment and technology courses.

The state’s money would not entirely cover the CWI and CEI projects.

After twice going to voters for funding for the health sciences building, to no avail, CWI changed its approach. If the state provides $10 million, CWI will cover the rest of the $22.5 million cost using budget reserves, certificates of participation or donations.

CEI would still need about $12 million to cover Future Tech’s $42 million cost, and the balance could come from donors or the feds, Aman said.

Wednesday’s presentations represented a transition of sorts.

Jones appeared before budget-writers on his 13th day as CWI president. He took part of his time to discuss his own career path — which has taken him from corporate America to Harvard University, to a dean’s position at Boise State University and now to Idaho’s largest two-year school. He said he took the CWI post because he believes community colleges represent “where the ball is moving in higher education,” providing a pathway to help graduates get a better job. “We have a competitive advantage, arguably.”

Compared to Jones, Michael Sebaaly is a relative veteran; he addressed lawmakers on his 60th day as NIC’s interim president. Lawmakers had no questions for Sebaaly — even though a divided board of trustees fired President Rick MacLennan in September, NIC’s bond rating was downgraded in December and the college’s accreditation is under scrutiny.

Rep. Paul Amador addressed the recent events, vaguely.

“I know there’s been challenges in the past several months,” said Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene. “Let us know how we can help.”

Little’s $50 million school grant program bill emerges

Another piece of Gov. Brad Little’s education agenda surfaced Wednesday.

Without discussion, the Senate Education Committee introduced a bill to create a $50 million Empowering Parents Grant Program, an idea Little floated in his Jan. 10 State of the State address.

Little wants to use federal coronavirus aid money to create the grant program. Parents could apply for grants of up to $1,000 per child or $3,000 per household, to cover a range of learning expenses, such as computers and Internet access, textbooks or physical or speech-language therapy.

The grants would be awarded based on income. For example, families with an income of $60,000 or less would have first shot at the grants.

After Wednesday’s hearing, co-sponsor Lori Den Hartog said the bill is designed to duplicate the Strong Families, Strong Students grants program Little created in 2020.

Den Hartog, R-Meridian, co-sponsored a bill in 2021 to extend the grants — but that bill contained controversial language that would have created a private school scholarship program. That language does not appear in the bill introduced Wednesday.

Wednesday’s vote means the bill will come back to Senate Education for a full hearing, and committee chairman Steven Thayn said that will likely take place next week.

“We’ll try to get it done right away,” said Thayn, R-Emmett.

‘The elephant in the room:’ University presidents hedge against another anti-indoctrination session

The day after Boise State University President Marlene Tromp was grilled at JFAC, college presidents came to the House Education Committee Wednesday ready for more hard questions.

Tromp and the presidents of Idaho’s other public four-year colleges and universities touted their institutions’ accomplishments over the last year. But they also all, unprompted, seemed to hedge against another legislative session contoured by Republican lawmakers’ concerns about critical race theory and leftist indoctrination in schools, concerns that led to higher education budget cuts last year.

The presidents pushed back against allegations of indoctrination.

“We’re not teaching un-American ideas at an institution that I’m the president of,” Idaho State University’s Kevin Satterlee told the committee.

But the presidents also stressed that they’ve listened to the Legislature’s concerns and have tangibly responded to ensure they comply with a new law targeting critical race theory.

Addressing “the elephant in the room,” Lewis-Clark State College President Cynthia Pemberton said, “If we find that there is fact-based evidence to support a concern, by golly, we’re going to address it.”

Here’s how the presidents say they have responded.

Lewis-Clark: Pemberton said the new law targeting critical race theory, House Bill 377, triggered conversations with faculty to ensure compliance and efforts to increase the visibility of the college’s system for addressing student complaints.

She also pointed to an all-campus survey that she said found Lewis-Clark’s campus climate to be “healthy and conducive to a broad range of perspectives, viewpoints, and opinions.”

Boise State: Tromp said her administration has worked to ensure compliance with the law, too, and heralded her university’s new “Institute for Advancing American Values,” to be launched this semester. The institute will kick off with a talk from Jason Riley, an economically conservative opinion columnist for the Wall Street Journal.

Idaho State: Satterlee said his university verified that state funds and mandatory fees are not going to diversity and inclusion programs; rather, they’re bankrolled by non-universal fees. He championed a forum on academic freedom that was held on campus, a panel to discuss compliance with HB 377 and ISU’s channels for taking student complaints.

University of Idaho: “Last year, HB 377 caused us to reexamine some of our teaching, including the limited upper division classes to discuss critical race theory,” President C. Scott Green said.

Green said the university verified that it’s complying with the law by consulting Holley Troxell, the Boise law firm that found no wrongdoing in a Boise State diversity course that drew a complaint from a still-unidentifed lawmaker.

Lawmakers’ reactions, and questions: Rep. Barbara Ehardt, R-Idaho Falls, thanked the presidents for “just joining in and having that discussion” on HB 377. “You anticipated that one of the things which we’d want to hear — and … may have more questions on — was the response to 377.”

And after Tuesday’s grilling in JFAC from Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg, Ehardt was the only House Education member to ask an indoctrination-related question. She only sought more details from Tromp on her “Institute for Advancing American Values.”

Rather, a batch of committee members commended the presidents for their work.

Questions covered U of I’s efforts to bolster its cybersecurity programming, its January 2022 move of some law school courses into a former Concordia Law School building in Boise and a call from Rep. Dorothy Moon, R-Stanley, to beef up the university’s mining programs.

Moon cited a recent story from The Atlantic on Idaho’s rich cobalt stores, calling for more mining and mining education in the state.

“We need you to open that school of mines. … Seriously, we cannot be beholden to the Chinese metal market. We have got to provide for ourselves,” said Moon, addressing Green.

Green defended the university’s “robust” mining program, saying its graduates are often employed in the field, but said “I am willing to invest with you” in strengthening U of I’s offerings.

Workforce development also took center stage, leading Satterlee to say the Legislature must invest more in Idaho State if it wishes to produce more nurse practitioners and physician assistants amid health care worker shortages. And though Tromp stopped short of calling for more money to fund added programs, she said Idaho has “a thirst” for more engineers that Boise State could help quench, when prompted by a question.

The presidents will present again Wednesday afternoon, to the Senate Education Committee.

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