Supporters of efforts to add a community college in Erie had hoped the state Board of Education would give them a final answer in March.
Thanks to the coronavirus, they’re still waiting.
The board was scheduled to hold an evidentiary hearing — where opponents and supporters of the community college plan would offer evidence — on March 18. But the meeting was canceled as the state stepped up efforts to contain the coronavirus.
A month-and-half later, board members on Wednesday discussed the next steps for Erie County’s nearly three-year-old application, including rescheduling the March hearing for June.
“I just urge you to move forward,” Freda Tepfer, a supporter of the community college in Erie, told the board, which held a remote meeting using Zoom. “It’s time to get this done and decided, and please don’t delay any longer.”
Andre Horton, a member of Erie County Council, and Gary Lee, director of administration for the County of Erie, spoke in support of a virtual hearing.
“We are grateful that the committee appears to be moving forward with this,” Lee told the board.
The state has 14 public community colleges; Erie’s would be the 15th.
In October, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said the state had money to pay for a 15th community college and endorsed the plan. He said the community college would help meet the training and workforce development needs of businesses in northwest Pennsylvania, while also creating a path to jobs with family-sustaining wages.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education determined that Erie met the three criteria for approval: enough potential students, enough wealth to sustain a community college, and too few higher learning institutions serving the area.
The department estimated that the state would contribute $2.1 million to the community college in its first year. Erie boosters estimated the school would also receive $2.1 million in funding for the first year from the Erie Community Foundation, plus another $1.3 million from the county’s share of gaming revenue.
A full-time student taking 15 credits per semester could expect to pay about $3,500 in tuition and fees for one year (fall and spring), according to the department.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) opposes the Erie proposal, questioning the financial projections contained in the proposal. He said the county could be forced to raise property taxes to make up the money if revenue falls short.
Scarnati has said the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College, which combines virtual and in-person instruction and serves multiple counties, makes the proposed community college in Erie redundant.
Before the March hearing was canceled, Scarnati and a representative or representatives from the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College were scheduled to testify during the evidentiary hearing. So were representatives for Erie County and Empower Erie, the group leading the community college effort.
Disclosure: The Erie Community Foundation, a financial supporter of the community college plan, is a PA Post funder. As part of our commitment to nonprofit, nonpartisan, fact-based journalism that does not permit donor or sponsor influence, we list all of our current year donors on the PA Post website.
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