Early in the 1960s the PA legislature approved the process for establishing local community colleges. Tuition is divided in thirds. Students and the state pay two of the shares. The final cash may come from either a first class city (Philadelphia), a county government or one or more school districts located in the county. This is known as the local or primary sponsor.
14 community colleges exist in PA today; all but one based south of Interstate 80. In 1965 the counties of Butler, Armstrong and Indiana intended to band together for one community college. Armstrong and Indiana backed out but Butler went forward.
As the story goes, Butler commissioners mortgaged their residences to provide funding to begin Butler County Community College. Today BC3 provides education and training for about 4,000 students in Butler, Lawrence and Mercer counties. Lawrence and Mercer counties are not prime sponsors. Residents of those counties pay two-thirds of tuition or twice what Butler residents pay.
Erie County would like to become the 15th community college in PA – again – but without shouldering any local responsibility. Almost a decade ago, Northwest PA Technical Institute (“NPTI”) and its successor Center for Advanced Manufacturing and Technology (“CAMTech”) went bankrupt, sticking the state for $15 million. An investigation by the PA Auditor-General revealed only ten students ever really graduated from NPTI-CAMTech. Supposedly Erie dodged paying the local share by using existing government and education buildings for classrooms.
If Erie gets its way this time, local residents will have a new community college at little cost to them. Their share would also be paid by the state in the latest example of public officials and community leaders wanting services as long as they are paid by someone else.
Seed funds were committed by Erie Community Foundation ($1 million) and three local businesses at $10,000 each. Erie now hopes that operating funds will come from an estimated $1.5-$2 million annual state appropriation in an earmark posted by State Sen. Jane Earll in the recently passed legislation allowing table games at the state’s casinos.
Gambling revenues help reduce local property taxes for all of us but, apparently, it is possible for raids to be made.
Two hurdles remain. Will the Rendell administration (or his successor) allow this end run around the long-standing state law requiring local support? Stronger opposition comes from the current 14 community college presidents. Since the legislature is unlikely to increase funds, they do not want another slice of the pie.
This story began with founding of Butler County Community College and it is only fitting that it ends with BC3. The Butler people have been in Erie telling anyone who will listen that they are willing and able to expand there, with or without a primary sponsor.
The Erie people are telling the Butler people to go back home.