College plan sparks NIC debate
Efforts to create a statewide system of community colleges have exposed a debate about work force training and tax fairness at North Idaho College.
Two North Idaho chambers of commerce have issued statements of support for a statewide, state-funded community college system to replace the current system, in which schools like NIC are independently run and get a significant portion of their budget from property taxes. A legislative proposal for a statewide system was derailed in Boise, though supporters expect the idea to return as Idaho looks to expand community college offerings around the state.
The statements from Hayden and Post Falls chambers cite concerns over work force training at NIC, among other issues. Other business leaders have complained that the school is not responsive to their needs for specially targeted training. The North Idaho Manufacturing Consortium also supports a statewide system, and complained in a letter earlier this year about NIC’s ability to meet its members’ training needs.
“Our group feels that (NIC President) Michael Burke and his board of trustees have not responded to the needs of our manufacturing community,” according to the March 1 letter signed by Ronald Nilson, president and CEO of Ground Force Manufacturing.
Attempts to reach Nilson on Friday for comment were unsuccessful.
Rich Piazza, chairman of the government committee for Hayden’s chamber, said that’s not an uncommon feeling among some in the business community. His group supports having the governor appoint board members.
“Maybe they should take a look at the way they’re doing things, and how responsive they are to the business community,” he said, adding that NIC officials had met with his group recently.
Not all business groups share the Hayden chamber’s view. The Coeur d’Alene Area Chamber of Commerce opposes turning over the selection of board members to the governor, and while its members share the desire for more work force training, they realize that the funding for that comes from the state and hasn’t been increased in recent years, said President Jonathan Coe.
“We think local governance of North Idaho College has been a very valuable component of its success over the years,” Coe said.
NIC spokesman Kent Propst said he understands the desire of manufacturers to get workers trained, and he said the school has beefed up its vocational and technical training programs with no new money from the state. The school added four vo-tech programs this year, and is adding two more next year, he said.
“We are trying,” Propst said. “We are not oblivious to their concerns.”
State and local officials around Idaho are interested in bolstering community-college offerings – in Boise, particularly. But lawmakers and business leaders in Kootenai and Twin Falls counties, where residents pay property taxes for their colleges, want to ensure their residents aren’t taxed unfairly if more schools are added.
The Hayden chamber is calling for a statewide system of funding, a focus on providing job training, and appointment of board members by the governor. Duane Rasmussen, with the Hayden chamber, said his organization supports having the governor appoint board members because the NIC board of trustees and school administrators have not been responsive to concerns of political conservatives.
But Freeman Duncan, an attorney with the Post Falls chamber and former state legislator, said his group did not share that concern. He noted that the nonpartisan board positions include a range of individuals from different viewpoints.
“I don’t believe the chamber would view board appointment by the governor as meeting our (desire for) local control,” he said.
For the Post Falls group, he said, the main concerns are funding fairness. With property taxes making up about a quarter of NIC’s budget, the Post Falls chamber would like to see a fair statewide system of funding, or allow local property taxpayers to vote on whether to keep paying the extra taxes.
Propst said NIC supports some way of bringing equity to Kootenai County taxpayers, and noted that some other states, like Washington, have community college districts that collect from everyone statewide. As work force training and higher education become more critical in the job market, community college training is a statewide need that shouldn’t be shouldered by only some taxpayers, he said.
“You’re going to see community colleges be a subject of discussion in Idaho for some time to come,” Propst said. “Communities are begging for community colleges. They are begging for open-enrollment institutions, institutions that are affordable, institutions that are able to respond quickly to the needs of local communities.”