Setting up a community college needs voter, state board approval

Monday, June 11, 2007

Cape Girardeau can't open a community college unless voters approve it.

Even before an election, proponents of such a venture would have to convince the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education that another college is needed, state officials said. Supporters would also have to show the proposed district has a sufficient tax base and pool of new high school graduates to make such a school successful.

All of that could take a couple of years, said Leroy Wade, Missouri's assistant commissioner of higher education.

Several Cape Girardeau business leaders want to turn the Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center into a community college.

But that can't happen unless voters establish a community college district as spelled out by state law. Such districts encompass the boundaries of several school districts.

Rich Payne, director of the career center, said the support of school officials in those districts would be key to moving forward with any plan to establish a new community college.

Voters would have to petition the state coordinating board to hold an election. That petition would require signatures of voters from each participating school district equal to at least 5 percent of the votes received by the top vote-getter in each district's last school board election.

Typically, a steering committee is formed to pursue the venture, he said. The committee must hire a consultant to obtain the data including surveying residents and potential students to determine the need for a community college. The coordinating board would decide whether to hold the election.

Cape Girardeau businesswoman Kathy Swan chairs the state board. "If we truly need something as a state, our board would be all for it," she said. But first, she added, the board would have to see a documented need.

If an election to establish a school were held, voters at the same time would elect a six-member governing board of trustees.

A simple majority would be needed to establish the community college district and set the tax levy. Voter approval would be based on the total votes cast in the region, Wade said.

Community colleges have three primary sources of revenue: a local tax levy, tuition and state aid.

Missouri law allows for a separate state appropriation for new community colleges based on the average state funding for existing community colleges. The state also provides some money for campus construction.

But local funds would be need-ed to pay most of the start-up costs, Wade said.

Cape Girardeau area leaders say they hope an expected study on post-secondary education needs by the Missouri Department of Economic Development and the University of Missouri will help them decide if a community college is the right option.

-- Mark Bliss

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