Three Rivers, SEMO square off in Bootheel

Sunday, July 3, 2005

Three Rivers will open six education centers in August; three will go head to head with Southeast's.

A bitter feud between Three Rivers Community College and Southeast Missouri State University has prompted Three Rivers to launch its own higher education centers as the two schools aggressively compete for students in the Bootheel.

Three Rivers plans to open six education centers in August, including three that will go head to head with Southeast's centers in Sikeston, Kennett and Malden. The other three centers will be in smaller towns -- Campbell, Portageville and Bernie.

All Three Rivers centers will be in existing buildings. Five -- a former fitness enter, a former Head Start center, a former Jehovah's Witness hall, a former Oddfellows lodge and a community center -- are being renovated and outfitted with classrooms. The sixth will operate in part of an existing education center, the University of Missouri's Delta Center in Portageville.

Three Rivers president Dr. John Cooper said the cities of Bernie and Campbell are providing facilities for free. Three Rivers is leasing facilities in Malden, Sikeston and Kennett and paying rent at Portageville.

The sounds of power saws and hammers have become the current soundtrack in this dispute even as attorneys for both schools battle it out in court and Missouri's commissioner of higher education questions the proliferation of centers and why the two schools can't work together.

'Excited about it'

But some community leaders in the Bootheel couldn't be happier. They say the feud has sparked increased competition between the two colleges that will mean more choices and more access to higher education for Bootheel students.

"How many communities of less than 5,000 people can say they have two colleges?" asked Bill Hampton, executive director of the Malden Chamber of Commerce. "We are just excited about it."

Malden has a population of over 4,700.

Although Malden is small, Hampton thinks the town and surrounding area have sufficient population to funnel students to both centers.

With the soaring cost of gasoline and other college expenses, students are increasingly interested in getting an education at home, he said.

Campbell, a town of 2,200 people, is fixing up a former Oddfellows lodge to provide four classrooms, new restrooms and offices.

Renovations could cost the town four miles north of the Arkansas line as much as $100,000.

But Campbell, which has its own power plant, has the money to do it, Mayor Raymond Gunter said.

Gunter said it's a good investment in terms of economic development and could draw students from nearby Piggott, Ark.

"We want people to move to Campbell," the mayor said. "We want houses to be built."

As Three Rivers makes plans to open its new centers in August, Southeast is investing hundreds of thousands of dollars upgrading equipment at its three Bootheel centers. Southeast has invested about $150,000 upgrading computers, university officials said. The university is spending about $200,000 more in new science equipment for its three centers.

Three Rivers so far hasn't disclosed how much it's spending on setting up the new centers, even to Missouri higher education commissioner Dr. Gregory Fitch, who has been inquiring about the costs for more than a month.

Three Rivers officials said they will comply with Fitch's recent demand that the school open its records as required under Missouri's Sunshine Law.

Still calculating expenses

Three Rivers officials have said they are still calculating the expenses in setting up the new centers, but they're confident they can operate education centers at far less cost than Southeast.

"Not every student needs a state-of-the-art Apple computer," said Judith Scott, vice president of advancement. Her duties include overseeing the community college's marketing efforts.

Poplar Bluff lawyer Paul Kidwell, who represents Three Rivers in its current legal battle with Southeast, said school officials have yet to add up all the costs. "I wouldn't be surprised if it is over half a million dollars," he said.

Through its lawsuit, Three Rivers hopes to force Southeast to reimburse the community college for the expense of opening the new centers, Kidwell said. As Three Rivers officials see it, the community college is incurring added expenses because Southeast severed its partnership with Three Rivers earlier this year.

Southeast and Three Rivers had a longtime partnership in which both schools taught classes at Bootheel education centers in Kennett, Malden and Sikeston. But that partnership dissolved after Southeast announced in February that it would take over the teaching of all classes in the three centers at the end of the spring semester.

The move angered Three Rivers officials, who accused Southeast of breaching an agreement in which the community college paid rent to teach classes in the three Bootheel centers. In March, Three Rivers filed a lawsuit against Southeast.

Three Rivers' Cooper said the Poplar Bluff-based junior college has no choice but to open its own education centers in order to continue providing freshman- and sophomore-level courses to students throughout the Bootheel. Cooper said the new centers, which will include interactive television classrooms, will help Three Rivers retain many of the 826 Bootheel students who previously had been taking Three Rivers classes at Southeast's centers.

Three Rivers officials said the college, whose main campus is in Poplar Bluff, couldn't afford to lose what amounts to more than a fourth of its total enrollment.

Southeast already has enrolled nearly a thousand students for fall classes at its three centers combined. That includes both lower-division and upper-division courses.

Three Rivers officials plan to start registering students later this month for fall classes at the centers. They expect to enroll hundreds of students too. Three Rivers hopes to recover most of its enrollment within the next two years, Cooper said.

Opportunity or anger

Meanwhile, college students in the region are looking at their options.

"I think at first everybody was really confused," said Roger Tilmon, 45, of Bernie. He is taking premed classes and wants to become a doctor.

"Some saw it as an opportunity to get into Southeast easily, and others were mad about it," he said of what has become a public divorce between the two institutions.

Tilmon has decided to stick with Three Rivers for his lower-division classes, insisting he'll get the same education at less cost than at Southeast.

But Stefanie Cryts, 33, of Malden has switched to Southeast. She wanted to pursue a bachelor's degree all along. She said she would have had to take a few extra classes for her associate's degree through Three Rivers that weren't necessary for a four-year degree.

She said the move to Southeast's degree program will save her money.

Three Rivers officials insist the community college offers the best buy when it comes to a college education. The community college, Cooper said, provides affordable education and has open admission, which benefits those students who aren't academically eligible to attend Southeast, he said.

Southeast president Dr. Ken Dobbins counters that the Cape Girardeau university, a moderately selective institution, has programs in place to help students who otherwise would fall short of admission requirements.

Southeast officials criticized Three Rivers' plan to establish separate education centers.

"I truly believe it is a duplication of effort," Dobbins said. "It is an unwise spending of taxpayer resources."

But Cooper argues that any duplication of courses is the fault of Southeast.

"What they did was go out and duplicate our courses at a much higher cost to students. We are not really happy that Southeast has decided to go out and try to become a community college," Cooper said.

Three Rivers is charging tuition of $89 a credit hour for its freshman- and sophomore-level classes. Southeast is charging $110 a credit hour for freshmen and sophomore classes at its centers.

'Efficient and affordable'

Scott said the new facilities are needed now that Three Rivers no longer can teach courses at Southeast's Bootheel centers. "We are providing an efficient and affordable way for people to succeed in an area that desperately needs low-cost, high-quality education," she said.

Missouri's commissioner of higher education, Dr. Gregory Fitch, repeatedly has urged the two schools to resume their partnership in some fashion, but so far that hasn't happened.

Dobbins has questioned whether it's cost-effective for Three Rivers to operate its own higher education centers. Southeast proposed that the two schools equally split the cost of operating the three centers and that Southeast teach 40 percent of the lower-division courses at all three centers and all of the upper-division and graduate courses.

Three Rivers officials rejected the idea, suggesting it wasn't financially feasible for Three Rivers.

The two schools dispute each other's figures.

Southeast says it would end up teaching 51 percent of all classes at the three education centers it runs with Three Rivers teaching the other 49 percent.

Three Rivers contends that under the proposal it would teach only 30 percent of the classes but pay at least half the cost of operating the centers.

Counting all the costs -- including money for technology upgrades -- Three Rivers officials estimate the proposal would have resulted in the community college having to pay $700,000 to $800,000 annually to Southeast.

Southeast spends $1.1 million annually operating the three centers, Dobbins said. The university contends it's losing $800,000 annually in operating those centers and that Three Rivers doesn't pay its fair share of the cost.

Taking over the teaching of all courses at the three centers will generate more tuition revenue for Southeast and help the school cover its costs, university officials have said.

Dobbins doubts Three Rivers will be able to operate its centers profitably. "I don't see how they are going to be able to break even," he said.

Three Rivers officials dismiss his criticism. "He needs to worry about his budget and we'll worry about ours," said Scott.

Fitch seeking records

But the state's higher education commissioner also has expressed concern about the cost of opening new centers.

On May 24, Fitch requested in an e-mail that Three Rivers disclose its expenses for leasing and renovating buildings for higher education centers.

On June 7, Fitch said he was informed by Cooper that Three Rivers was still negotiating rental and lease agreements.

On June 14, Missouri's higher education department filed a request under Missouri's open meetings and open records law for Three Rivers to provide all public records relating to establishment of the centers.

Three Rivers now says it will make those records available but that higher education officials will have to travel to Poplar Bluff to copy the documents.

"We are scrambling around trying to get these centers put together. We don't have the ability right now to have time for staff to be sidetracked," said Kidwell, the Three Rivers attorney.

"All we have to do is make the records available. The statutory burden is really on the person requesting records," Kidwell said.

In addition, Three Rivers has filed its own open-records request. Three Rivers officials want Missouri's higher education department to provide copies of all internal communications from the commissioner, the Coordinating Board for Higher Education and Southeast officials regarding the lingering dispute.

Higher education officials said they will provide the records.

As for the dispute, Southeast and Three Rivers officials see no easy resolution.

"It has not always been a perfect marriage, not for a long time," Cooper said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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