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Cash for community colleges

BOISE – New compromise legislation to put $5 million into additional community college services statewide next year won the endorsement of the state Board of Education on Thursday – though the bill hasn’t even been introduced yet.

The new measure offers no property tax relief for residents of Kootenai, Jerome and Twin Falls counties who now support North Idaho College and the College of Southern Idaho in part through local property taxes.

“I still have a huge problem with saddling Kootenai County … with a property tax to provide that same service to other areas of the state tax-free,” Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, told the state board. “So I see this as a step in establishing community colleges, but the next step will be developing equity.”

Goedde, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, joined Rep. Ann Rydalch, R-Idaho Falls, in negotiating the compromise bill with Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and the state board. Goedde and Rydalch originally had proposed a $13 million plan to set up a statewide community college system, and letting NIC and CSI patrons vote on whether to join the new system and stop paying property tax or keep their locally elected governing boards.

“This truly is compromise legislation,” Rydalch said. “Sen. Goedde and I are concerned about the property tax … but I was willing to concede that and at least get half a loaf, rather than no loaf as far as our area.”

State Superintendent of Schools Marilyn Howard voted against endorsing the draft legislation, which could be introduced today or Monday, but she was outvoted 6-1. She asked representatives of colleges and universities around the state who were participating in the board’s conference-call meeting what they thought of the proposal, and all said they hadn’t yet seen it. Several expressed strong reservations.

“I believe it is consistent with my past action to not move forward until we have actually consulted with the people who will be impacted by a position,” Howard said.

Kent Propst, NIC spokesman, said the Coeur d’Alene college has been developing a proposal to submit to the state board to try to qualify for some of the money to expand its outreach efforts throughout North Idaho. NIC at first was told it had to submit the proposal by today, he said, but Thursday was told the deadline was pushed to next Friday.

Propst said NIC can’t say whether it supports the bill “until we actually see the darn thing. So we’re anxious to see it and excited about what we understand is in it. We sure hope it’s something we can embrace.”

Dwight Johnson, the state board’s executive director, told the board the money would consist of $3.5 million in ongoing funding and $1.5 million in one-time funds. He said “we would anticipate” it would be divided to give “an equal amount to the six regions of the state.”

That would mean just over $800,000 for each region.

Bob Kustra, president of Boise State University, said he was “just delighted” that legislation is moving forward to allow classes to start next fall. The Boise area is the largest metropolitan area in the nation with no community college. But he expressed concern that if each region gets an equal amount, per-student funding would vary vastly from region to region, and the Boise area likely wouldn’t be able to serve many people who’d like to enroll.

The compromise bill sets up the $5 million as “seed money.” It also allows new community colleges to draw on an existing law that requires counties whose residents attend Idaho community colleges to pay the colleges as much as $500 a semester, to offset tuition. That money comes from county liquor funds, but if the liquor funds aren’t sufficient, counties levy property taxes to cover the expense.

Mike Mason, of CSI, said that could be an “extreme hardship on these counties,” and counties should be consulted about the issue.

Goedde said there are many questions left unanswered in the bill. “Basically what we’ve done here is we’ve given you a couple tires and a front bumper and said, ‘Build a car,’ ” he told the state board. “So the real responsibility is on the state board” to make the system work. “You’ve got a huge amount of responsibility.”