Mergers Without Rancor?

Alabama plans to consolidate seven community colleges into two -- the kind of move that in other states would have seen much protest. But these changes went through without much public opposition. That doesn't mean there isn't any opposition.

December 22, 2015

The move to consolidate seven community colleges in Alabama seems to be happening rather quickly for some people, especially as questions remain over what will happen to each of the colleges' programs and identities.

Last week the Alabama Community College System Board of Trustees voted to consolidate the seven colleges into two regional systems -- without opposition or discussion during their meeting. The decision came after the Legislature moved control of Alabama's 25 community colleges from the state Board of Education to the newly created trustee board earlier this year.

But as news about the consolidation has spread, local leaders and community members who live in, work around or attend these institutions are voicing their concerns.

“Honestly, it would be a little misleading to say everybody is on board, because this went from a whisper to a reality within a matter of weeks. It's not like anybody had a bunch of community meetings saying, ‘Let’s come together and discuss,’” said Thomas Coley, an employee representative from the Alabama Education Association, which represents the state's teachers and faculty members, and a Tallapoosa County commissioner. “There’s so little information that has made its way down to faculty and staff about this process. People have concerns about this.”

In the east-central part of the state, Southern Union State and Chattahoochee Valley community colleges would consolidate under Central Alabama Community College to create one system. Reid State Technical College, Jefferson Davis and Alabama Southern Community Colleges would consolidate under Faulkner State Community College in the south.

“We’re looking at the same number of campuses, but a more regional system,” said Janet Kincherlow-Martin, interim executive director for marketing and public relations for the Alabama Community College System. “We’re looking at a way for our colleges to meet their mission, but to do it more efficiently and effectively. We felt a more regional approach would allow us to do that and allow us to build on our workforce development effort.”

The consolidation is expected to make each college more efficient, but also to counter the effects of declining enrollments. For instance, Central Alabama last year enrolled 1,761 students and this year had 1,735 in the fall, according to the system. Southern Union last year had 4,726 students and this fall enrolled 4,684, while Chattahoochee Valley decreased by 160 students to 1,623 this year.

The other four colleges saw increases in enrollment from last year to this, but have still been on an overall decline for a number of years, Kincherlow-Martin said.

The consolidation has also won the praise of Moody's Investors Service, which recently reported the move as “a credit-positive response to five years of declining enrollment” and said that it “should reduce overhead expenses significantly. The system's board will likely consider additional consolidations over time.”

Some of the colleges have only one or two counties in their area, some are located in geographically vast rural areas and some are in overlapping service areas, which can be confusing if people aren't aware of the type of industry or area each college serves, Kincherlow-Martin said.

“As a business owner, I don't have to worry about going to College A or College B, so this will cut down on the confusion,” she said. “Those services, classes and programs are still there, but we'll cut down on duplication.”

So two neighboring colleges with similar programs may see one program move to the college that specializes in that field. There will also be name, color and even mascot changes for the colleges to reflect the new regional systems. Athletic programs at the seven colleges will also be evaluated.

“We’re still at the beginning stages of this,” Kincherlow-Martin said. “One of the things the chancellor made clear when he took this proposal was that the intent is not to do away with anyone's job because we're still going to have those campus sites and they'll still have support staff and faculty and an administrative structure.”

Kincherlow-Martin said they haven't yet been able to project just how much of a cost savings there will be for the new regional systems, but just going from seven to two presidents will create a savings. As for those five presidential positions, she said they're not considered cuts because those presidents were serving from other institutions, on an interim basis.

But concerns remain about what will happen to the identities and cultures of each of the colleges, as well as the programs and faculty members. Not to mention concerns about the relationships these colleges have built with their local communities and alumni.

“I continue to oppose this and I don't think it's in the best interest of the community college that serves my area of the state,” said Republican State Representative Bob Fincher, whose district includes Southern Union Community College. “Southern Union is a very good community college. It's always been financially sound and to be honest, I voted against [creating the trustee board] because I don't think the people there really want to be attached to another community college.”

Fincher was one of a few legislators to vote against the move to create the community college Board of Trustees earlier this year, which some view as the first step that led to the consolidation. He was also the lone vote against the board measure when it appeared on the Education Policy Committee.

“There's a separate board appointed by the governor that oversees the community colleges now. It was probably done so the consolidations would be carried out,” he said. “You're moving from an elected board supervising [the colleges] to an appointed board that feels no pressure from the public.”

George Wallace’s Community Colleges

Most of the community colleges in Alabama were created under the late Governor George Wallace in the 1960s and 1970s, Fincher said, although Southern Union has been around since the 1920s.

At that time, the state didn't follow a regionalized model for establishing the two-year institutions, although other states did, said Steve Katsinas, a professor and director of the University of Alabama's Education Policy Center.

This model typically has a college placed in a central part of a specific region and includes multiple campuses under that college.

“The Wallace era was not known for good statewide planning for community college education in Alabama,” he said.

Wallace, who has a reputation as a populist, pushed for more community and technical colleges particularly in the state's rural and southern areas, where he had political support. “[In 1987] two-thirds of the colleges were located in largely dry areas where one-third of the people of the state resided,” according to a 1994 study by Katsinas, adding that the placement of these institutions reflected the balance of power in a Legislature that was dominated by rural interests.

But things have been changing since then.

“Alabama has been inching toward a regionalized model since the end of the fourth Wallace administration in 1987,” Katsinas said. “The new independent statewide community college board may also be encouraging the move.”

But nationally, financial pressures will encourage more states and institutions to move to a more regionalized approach, he said, adding that state funding for community colleges in Alabama totaled about $350 million in 2006, but today it's at about $290 million.

Coley, the AEA employee representative, said there's some concern that Alabama is looking to replicate the college systems in nearby Georgia and Louisiana. If a board was created for the community colleges, perhaps Alabama will move to a similar regents board for the four-year institutions like those states, he said.

Fincher said there have been promises of public meetings to give the colleges and their communities a chance to decide on name changes and the like, but ultimately the decision has already been made.

Although they do still require the sign-off of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which is the accrediting agency for the state, the system's officials expect it will be approved, Kincherlow-Martin said.

“Each of these communities wonder[s] what the net impact will be to their economic engines and they don't know how resources will be doled out,” Coley said.

A large part of the concern is that no one really knows what the new systems will look like when the consolidation is finished, he said.

“One other thing concerns me as these colleges lose their identity. I'm fearful they'll lose the support they do have from local alumni and the fund-raising efforts that at least Southern Union has,” Fincher said. “I may be wrong. Time may prove me wrong, but I don't see right now where Southern Union is benefiting from this consolidation of community colleges.”

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