Empower Erie News & Updates

State Board approves Erie County community college

Posted on June 12th, 2020 at 7:20 AM

State Board approves Erie County community college

The vote came at the conclusion of a two-day evidentiary hearing.

Pennsylvania will create its first community college in more than a quarter century, and it will create it in Erie County.

The Pennsylvania Board of Education cast a historic 9-6 vote Thursday to approve Erie County’s application for what will be the state’s 15th public community college.

Community college backers, stationed at the Bayfront Convention Center, could be heard shouting excitedly and erupting in applause from the other end of a video conference feed as state Board of Education Executive Director Karen Molchanow read the vote tally.

The vote of approval came nearly three years after Erie County submitted its application to the state and after decades of failed attempts at establishing a community college.

“I was counting the votes,” Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper said. “They said we needed nine and when we got to nine I just wanted to start screaming. All the hard work has been worth it. Sometimes you need to struggle through a lot to actually make something really good happen.”

“It was such a wide range of emotions,” Erie County Councilman Andre Horton said. “To actually hear the vote itself, I can’t even describe the feeling.”

Horton said the decision is a “huge step for the community and the commonwealth.”

“We’ve established something that is going to keep giving long after we’re gone,” Horton said.

“We learned a valuable lesson” said Ron DiNicola, “which is that when we unite behind a project and we put our shoulder to the wheel we can do just about anything we want to do.

“We took on the most powerful interest in the state,” said DiNicola, who partnered with Horton in 2016 to co-found Empower Erie, a nonprofit that studied and advocated for a community college. “Thank God for the Board of Education, the Department of Education and the governor, who saw the wisdom in our effort.”

That “powerful interest” was Pennsylvania Senate President Joseph Scarnati, R-25th Dist., Jefferson County. Scarnati played a key role in the state Legislature in the formation of the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College, which serves a nine-county region that includes Erie.

Scarnati and NPRC officials were staunch opponents of the community college effort. Scarnati repeatedly said a community college would only duplicate services and educational offerings provided by the NPRC, a two-year regional school funded under a separate line item in the state budget, while unnecessarily costing Erie County taxpayers in the form of a local match. Erie County intends to fund its local match with casino gaming revenue for the first decade, as well as state aid, tuition and fees.

“While I respect the Board’s 9-6 decision, this does not change my feelings that the Erie community college plan is unsustainable and will be a burden on Erie taxpayers,” Scarnati said in a statement to the Erie Times-News.

Those and other issues were central to the virtual, two-day evidentiary hearing that preceded the Board of Education’s vote. For several hours Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning, a lawyer for Scarnati and the NPRC and a lawyer for Erie County and Empower Erie argued the merits of the community college proposal and whether the NPRC is adequately meeting the needs of county residents.

The hearing functioned like a court proceeding with witnesses being called to testify, attorneys making motions and objections as well as opening and closing statements.

The board’s vote Thursday won’t be final until it meets to ratify the decision. That could occur when it holds its regular meeting July 8-9.

According to Eric Levis, a spokesman for the Department of Education, “Findings of fact and conclusions of law will be presented for consideration as a final order at a future meeting of the board.”

Levis noted that board members can change their votes. He also said that any board member who was not present for the two-day evidentiary hearing can cast a vote if they review the record from the hearing.” Two Democratic state lawmakers were absent for the hearing.

There is also the possibility of an appeal. Official decisions by the Board of Education can be appealed to Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. Attorney Adam Santucci, who represented Scarnati and the NPRC during the proceedings, said Thursday as the hearing resumed that he objected to some procedural decisions of the board.

Santucci was dismayed that the board prohibited an expert witness report from James Linksz, the former president of Bucks County Community College who played a role in the crafting of the NPRC, from being entered into the record and that it limited Linksz’ testimony to statements of fact, rather than expert opinion.

“We would expect that that may happen from the other side,” Dahlkemper said. “But we feel that, if that does happen, we have an extremely strong case and we would hope that it (appeal) would get thrown out.”

The board had to determine three things in order to approve the application: that sufficient wealth (tax base) exists to support a community college financially, that there is a sufficient population to support a minimum enrollment and that there exists an unmet educational need.

Board member Jonathan Peri made the motion to approve the county’s community college application. Peri rejected the idea that Erie already has a community college in the form of the NPRC.

“The Erie population is adequate to sustain enrollment based upon testimony that we heard, the wealth seems sufficient to support it based on testimony we heard, and it’s clear the NPRC is not sufficiently serving Erie, and Erie in general is not adequately served by other institutions.”

Peri also said he was struck by both the passion and the content of testimony from Bishop Dwane Brock of the Victory Christian Center and the Eagles Nest Leadership Corp.

Brock, who also testified on Wednesday, made perhaps the most passionate plea to board members when asked what populations a community college would serve that the NPRC is not serving already.

“Let’s not dance around the issue,” said Brock, seemingly cutting through some of the educational jargon and legalese. “We’re talking about African-Americans in a very, very poor demographic. I have been in Erie for 40 years. I have never seen the NPRC reach out to the African-American community, who have been marginalized historically.”

Brock asked board members to “please excuse my passion,” and then continued to testify.

“I’ve been on the front lines for 40 years in this city,” he said. “To this point there has not been a concerted effort to reach the marginalized community to prepare them economically or intellectually for the workforce. This is what the community college, a bricks-and-mortar community college, would be prepared to do.”

Brock called it a “moral issue” and said he could find 100 local pastors to support his claims.

In addition to Peri, board members Nathan Barrett, Superior Court Judge Maureen Lally-Green, A. Lee Williams, Sandra Dungee Glenn, Pamela J. Gunter Smith, board chairwoman Karen Farmer White and James E. Barker voted in favor of the community college application.

But other board members were not convinced of the case made by Erie County and Empower Erie officials, including state Rep. Curt Sonney, the Harborcreek Township Republican who serves the 4th Legislative District.

Sonney, who is chairman of the House Education Committee, told the Erie Times-News Thursday that he voted again the community college because he believes the NPRC is already meeting the community’s needs.

“I do believe Erie County as a whole would have been much further ahead through a partnership,” with the NPRC, he said. “I do believe they are absolutely reinventing the same wheel and they absolutely will be in direct competition with each other when it comes to students.

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