Kansas community colleges: No reason to take politics out of higher education mergers

Proposed bill ends role of Legislature, governor in community or technical college linkages with universities

Cowley Community College president Dennis Rittle, top row center left, dropped a bomb during a recent Kansas Board of Regents meeting that the state's 19 community colleges would oppose a bill ending a requirement the Legislature approve mergers between community colleges and a state university. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Kansas community college presidents oppose a bill developed by the state Board of Regents ending authority of the Legislature and governor to block voluntary mergers between community or technical colleges and a university.

Dennis Rittle, president of Cowley Community College in Arkansas City, said leaders of the 19 community colleges wouldn’t endorse the reform.

“It is our position that if a merger or affiliation should occur between a community college and any other public secondary institution, that there should be a substantial amount of legislative discussion and thought before a merger or affiliation should be permitted,” Rittle said.

He said carrying the question to the Capitol would help expose unintended consequences and guarantee greater scrutiny of financial or academic complexities of realignment. It’s unnecessary to streamline the process by silencing the voice of legislators and a governor, he said.

Under existing state law, a community college or technical college could join forces with each other without permission of legislators and the governor. The reform floated by the Board of Regents would eliminate a provision in statute mandating mergers or affiliations between one of the six universities and a community or technical college had to be blessed by the Legislature.

Mark Hutton, a Wichita businessman and member of the Board of Regents, said he was surprised that widespread dissent suddenly emerged from community colleges. Each of the community colleges have independent boards of trustees but are also subject to Board of Regents’ oversight.

He said community college leadership failed to share their criticism until after the board released a legislative agenda that included adjustment to the higher education merger and affiliation law.

Mark Hutton, a Wichita member of the Kansas Board of Regents, said he was surprised by a decision by the 19 community college leaders in Kansas to oppose a reform bill that would take away the Kansas Legislature's veto power over mergers of community or technical colleges with a university. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
Mark Hutton, a Wichita member of the Kansas Board of Regents, said he was perplexed the 19 community college presidents in Kansas oppose a bill that would end the Kansas Legislature’s veto power over mergers of community or technical colleges and a university. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)

“I don’t know where the community colleges have been since we’ve been discussing this at various levels,” Hutton said. “I’m trying to understand why the community colleges would want to express their concerns about this issue when we’re this far into it. What have I missed?”

Rittle said the Board of Regents hadn’t bothered to seek the opinion of community college officials on the issue.

He suggested the state’s community college presidents hadn’t protested earlier because it wasn’t clear until recently the bill had gained traction among the Board of Regents.

“We understood a lot of this was what I’d call wet paint,” Rittle said. “Some of us have been around the block a few times and watched some ideas come forward and die down.”

No state university in Kansas has merged with a community college, but in 2014 negotiations between Fort Hays State University and Dodge City Community College nearly reached the point in which the question would be subject to consideration at the Capitol.

The Board of Regents and FHSU blessed the move and the community college’s board of trustees voted twice in favor before deadlocking 3-3 on a final vote to proceed. The campus would have been called Fort Hays State University at Dodge City. The loss of community identity for Dodge City and a combination of political, educational and financial considerations couldn’t be settled prior to forwarding it to Topeka.

Blake Flanders, president and chief executive officer of the Board of Regents, said the intent of the statutory amendment wasn’t to create a top-down structure that would force mergers or affiliations.

He said the legislature didn’t contemplate action on consolidation that hadn’t won backing of a community college’s trustees.

“Our proposal would be … if a community college or technical college wanted to affiliate or merge with a university, they could go ahead and do that without seeking additional legislation,” he said.

Washburn University, a municipal university in Topeka, completed an affiliation in 2008 with Kaw Area Technical School, which had been operated by the Topeka public school district. Now called Washburn Institute of Technology, the school is managed by the Washburn Board of Regents.