For the first time in nearly 27 years, the state Board of Education has approved a new community college in Pennsylvania.
The 10-5 vote in favor of Erie’s community college application comes one month after the board gave preliminary approval to the plan.
“This is a giant step forward,” board member Jim Barker, a former superintendent of Erie’s Public School, said following Wednesday’s vote.
Several board members opposed to the measure questioned whether the county had the population and wealth to sustain the standalone community college. And they said it would duplicate services already offered by the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College, which serves nine counties.
“I feel the board made this decision based on emotion and not facts,” said board member Nicole Carnicella.
Supporters of Erie’s community college plan countered those concerns by saying the regional college doesn’t adequately serve the area. During the evidentiary hearing in June, an attorney representing those in favor of the community college offered evidence that the regional college only enrolled five students taking 12 credits or more from Erie County at the start of the spring semester.
Erie County first submitted a community college application to the state in June 2017.
In an update in 2018, the county estimated that the college would enroll 500 full-time students in its first year. The county has also estimated that it would use $1.3 million in gaming tax revenue in its first year of operation and $2.1 million from the Erie Community Foundation. It also projected it would receive $2.1 million in state money in its first year of operation.
Ron DiNicola, one of the leaders of the efforts to bring the community college to Erie, he hopes the college starts serving students in the fall of 2021. He said the measure will help train people for higher-paying jobs and boost an economic transformation in the city.
“Right now, Erie’s undergoing an unprecedented revival,” DiNicola said, noting the city has seen major investment in its waterfront area. “So Erie’s becoming a 21st-century city. This community college measure was vital to take Erie to that next place.”
Decisions by the state Board of Education can be appealed to Commonwealth Court. Rick Smith, vice president of advancement and engagement for Northern Pennsylvania Regional College, said the decision to appeal will be up to the board, but he said he has “no indication that there will be plans to appeal.” He said the regional college plans to continue serving the Erie community.
State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) opposed the creation of the standalone community college. When asked if the senator planned to appeal the board’s decision, spokesperson Kate Flessner said Scarnati is considering his options.
“He still believes that the college would be a burden on Erie taxpayers,” Flessner said in an email.
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