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2011 February 7 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Community College Priorities Undone by Wash. Governor

TACOMA, Wash. (AP) — Quick, decide what’s more important: a new building to train nurses in Everett, or a new building for the same purpose in Lakewood.

There aren’t enough nursing classes at Clover Park Technical College to handle demand. The waiting list is 18 months long, President John Walstrum said. But up at Everett Community College, the health building is more than 40 years old. Classes there have wait lists too.

If that choice is hard, now add dozens of similar projects jostling for attention in a growing state two-year college system. Luckily, the college presidents have a way to rank those projects so they can share, not squabble over, a shrinking pot of state money.

“It keeps 34 presidents from going down there and lobbying for their individual projects,” said David Mitchell, president of Olympic College and chairman of the committee that spearheads the prioritization process. “(Lawmakers) love it because we’re not arguing with each other.”

Gov. Chris Gregoire, though, has added a sour note to that harmony. Her budget proposal scrambles the community college system’s ranked list, using different criteria to decide which projects should win funding. Everett (the system’s No. 12 priority) makes it. Clover Park (No. 11) doesn’t.

Gregoire’s plan reflects a preference to renovate or replace what schools have now instead of expanding, and to hold off on design work for future projects in favor of “shovel-ready” projects that could give a shot in the arm to the struggling construction industry.

Lawmakers will have to decide which approach they favor. But they are wary of departing from the agreement that keeps the colleges from each pushing their own agenda.

They’ve seen how it works in an every-man-for-himself system. The four-year universities still mostly go their own way.

For those passed over on the governor’s proposal, it can seem like being jumped in line.

“Violating the list that people have developed and the criteria that have gotten programs to where they are is going to be a real blow to those of us who have tried to operate within the rules,” said Walstrum.

Clover Park wants a single building to house all its health classes that are now spread around campus. The state has spent $2 million to design a facility that would be twice the size of the current nursing building and full of state-of-the-art equipment.

Enrollment in the school’s health programs has surged by more than one-quarter in three years, to 2,900 last year. But with limited money to go around, the governor wants to make sure colleges don’t “deteriorate beyond a certain level” instead of adding space for growth that may or may not continue, said Marty Brown, Gregoire’s budget director.

“We over-enroll, and then we ask for more buildings because we overenrolled?” Brown said. “We just can’t afford it.”

The whole debate could be moot if the state’s dire fiscal situation keeps it from borrowing money. Gregoire’s proposed two-year capital budget proposal calls for selling nearly $1 billion in bonds that are tied to state revenue. But the projected capacity for borrowing has bounced up and down.

Those projects farther down a list will likely be delayed at least another couple of years, like a planned $39 million health careers center at Tacoma Community College, the No. 18 priority of the system and not on Gregoire’s list (though she did call for funding No. 19, a $4 million student-services project at Centralia College). Tacoma officials had hoped to open it in 2013 after getting $3 million from the state for design and receiving the largest private gift in school history to help.

“It’s a critical building to us and I think to this community as well, because we need more health care workers,” said Dan Small, the college’s vice president for institutional advancement, who said that building the facility would employ more than 500 people.

Colleges are pressing the lead lawmakers on the capital budget, Democratic Sen. Derek Kilmer of Gig Harbor and Rep. Hans Dunshee of Snohomish, to follow the list that came out of their competitive process, approved by presidents and the state college board.

“I’m open to (Gregoire’s) jobs-now philosophy,” Dunshee said. But “I am getting a lot of yowling from the community college folks who build those lists.”

“Even people who got things on the list are saying, stick with the integrity of the process,” he said.

That includes Everett Community College, which secured money in the governor’s proposal for a new health programs building.

“We think that system works well and we should stick with it,” said Pat Sisneros, Everett’s vice president of college services.

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