Three Rivers aims lawsuit at Southeast

Friday, March 18, 2005

As a dispute between a Poplar Bluff, Mo., community college and Southeast Missouri State University goes to court, some Cape Girardeau educators are suggesting the Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center could be expanded into a community college.

Three Rivers Community College filed a lawsuit Wednesday in Butler County Circuit Court alleging that the university committed a breach of contract when it decided to eliminate community college classes at higher education centers in Kennett, Sikeston and Malden starting this summer. The lawsuit also seeks a court injunction to block such a move.

Southeast officials have insisted that the move was legal, and needed so the university could recover operating expenses and better serve students.

University president Dr. Ken Dobbins said Southeast in the past fiscal year paid $1.1 million to operate the three education centers while Three Rivers spent only $62,080 on direct operating costs.

But Randall Lee, vice president for student affairs at Three Rivers, said those figures don't account for all of the school supplies and computer technology his college has provided to the centers.

Southeast and Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Mo., have a more even split of operating costs at the Perryville higher education center they jointly operate.

Expenses at the Perryville center total over $173,000 a year. Southeast is paying nearly $90,000 of the cost while Mineral Area is providing over $73,000 of the expense, university officials said.

Three Rivers announced earlier this week that it would be offering classes at public high school buildings in the region -- including nearby Scott City -- in order to move ahead with enrolling students as it settles its disagreement with Southeast.

For some in Cape Girardeau County, the Cape Girardeau Career and Technology Center is already an accessible, de facto community college.

Rich Payne, director of the Career and Technology Center, and Cape Girardeau school board members Skip Smallwood and Charles Haubold suggested Thursday that the vocational center could officially be expanded into a community college.

"The hardest part is the taxing issue," Payne said. A community college district would have to be established and voters would have to approve a property tax to help fund the school.

"If a solid plan is put in place, I could see the career center evolving into a two-year college," Smallwood said.

Haubold, school board president, said there is enough land bordering the career center to allow for building expansion and development of a community college along Silver Springs Road.

But Southeast's Dobbins said such a move would involve a duplication of services and programs and questioned if taxpayers would vote for a tax to fund a community college.

Dobbins said he doesn't see a need for a community college in Cape Girardeau County.

Students who don't meet admission requirements at Southeast can take college classes at the Sikeston, Kennett, Malden and Perryville higher education centers or at the career and technology center, he said.

Proponents of a community college district say it's less expensive for students to take freshman and sophomore level classes at a two-year college than a four-year university.

"You can get all these prerequisites out of the way for less money," Smallwood said.

But Dobbins said such math fails to take into account the cost to taxpayers of paying an added property tax.

A state Coordinating Board for Higher Education policy, established in December 2003, mandates that four-year institutions should be the primary provider of lower-division courses in their home counties when there is no local community college district.

Dobbins helped write the policy. Both he and coordinating board member Kathy Swan of Cape Girardeau said the policy is designed to prevent unnecessary duplication of college programs and services.

But Swan said the policy wouldn't prevent voters from establishing a community college locally.

In addition, the policy allows colleges to work together in offering classes.

That's what has happened at the career center, Payne said.

The career center, starting last fall, has offered 10 two-year degree programs in technical fields such as automotive technology, computer networking, medical technology and welding.

Even before that, the center offered a degree program in industrial equipment maintenance.

The college classes are being taught by Mineral Area College, Three Rivers and Southeast. Students pay about $90 a credit hour to take the classes including general education classes offered at the career center as part of the associate of applied science degrees. Students graduate with Mineral Area College degrees.

The tuition is paid to the school teaching a particular course. Payne said the career center has provided classroom space at no charge to the participating colleges.

Payne said currently five associate's degree programs are being taught. A total of 76 students are enrolled in those degree programs, he said.

Payne said he doesn't know if the dispute between Southeast and Three Rivers will put an end to those classes this fall. But Dobbins insisted that Southeast wouldn't pull the plug on the classes.

mbliss@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 123

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