Opportunity Denied: How One County Fought For, and Lost, a Community College

An ES Select Exclusive

Also from ES | May 10, 2012
Photo of a help wanted sign in Erie, Pa. Credit: Mandy Zatynski

Twelfth Street in Erie, Pa., is the main artery from the region’s airport to State Street, a center of city life with bars, government offices, and a major hospital. But these days, the street makes for a dismal entrance to this lakeside city that also boasts a new convention center and a casino that attracts tourists from three states. The four-lane road is lined with abandoned warehouses and shuttered manufacturing shops. Windows are boarded up, and “For Lease” signs decorate several old, brick buildings. What was once a symbol of the city’s manufacturing prowess is now only a reminder that Erie County’s largest employer is a shell of its former self.

In 2001, International Paper, which had once employed as many as 2,200 people in the area, delivered a devastating blow to the region when it announced it was closing its Erie plant. Although only 760 employees remained at the time, the news followed closures of smaller manufacturing shops that had already left several thousand out of work. It was around this time that a report commissioned by Erie County’s economic development arm forecast economic doom if the county didn’t move immediately and aggressively to reinvent itself. “Unless the leaders and residents of Erie take dramatic steps to counter current trends,” consultant Brian Bosworth told city leaders at the time, “we believe the regional economy will continue to shrink relative to the rest of the nation, income and opportunity will erode, and people—especially young adults—will leave the region at an accelerating pace.”

Bosworth made a dozen recommendations for brightening Erie’s economic picture, including offering financial incentives to attract high-tech businesses and developing a downtown commercial and entertainment zone. But one recommendation in particular would ignite interest and provoke debate for years to come. It was the call for Erie to establish a community college, a publically funded two-year institution that would primarily offer degrees or certificates to qualify adults for jobs in remaining local industries like plastics and welding. Supporters pointed out that while Erie did have four-year colleges and for-profit technical schools, neither provided the affordability and flexibility that many local residents needed. Moreover, Erie County was the most populated area in Pennsylvania without a community college.

More than a decade later, it still is.

Despite the clear and growing need for such an institution—and despite an all-out push to build the college in 2009-10—Erie County Community College has failed to materialize for reasons that include weak marketing and an entrenched county council. But more than any other factor, the college fell victim to outdated ideas about higher education and public reluctance to make short-term investments for longer term economic gain. The college was also damaged by the anti-tax mindset that gripped the nation at the height of the tea party movement, a conservative base that rallied against tax increases and government spending, no matter what the cause.

Longtime Need

Erie, a rogue finger of northwestern Pennsylvania that could rightly belong to New York, has long sustained itself on industry. The International Paper mill had been taking people straight out of high school since it started as Hammermill Paper Co. in 1898. It would train workers on-site and give them careers that paid them well enough to raise middle-class families. Today, in Erie and elsewhere, the demands of these types of jobs have vastly changed, and a high school diploma and a strong work ethic are no longer enough. Employers now want better science, math, and analytical skills aligned to more sophisticated production processes. “We need a higher level of technical expertise,” said Ralph Pontillo, president of the Manufacturer and Business Association in Erie. “You don’t run the machines anymore; you run the computers that run the machines.”

While healthcare and education are increasingly big employers in Erie, manufacturing remains the second-largest sector thanks in part to a large General Electric locomotive plant, which employs about 5,500. County planners predict that manufacturing jobs will grow by 2 percent between 2010 and 2040. But Pontillo says manufacturing shops are also facing an immediate demand: they need skilled workers now to replace longtime, retiring machinists. And despite the region’s 7.8 percent unemployment rate, they can’t find them. “The disconnect,” Pontillo says, “is that [workers] are not prepared to take on these positions, even the most basic positions.”

That’s where a community college comes in. Community colleges, by design, are hyper-responsive to the needs of the local workforce. They provide skilled workers by creating programs that give employers what they want. President Barack Obama has recognized the unmet potential of community colleges by proposing an $8 billion initiative to establish new colleges and revamp programs at existing ones.[1] He has encouraged communities nationwide to take a cue from Central Piedmont Community College, an institution in Charlotte, N.C., that helps otherwise unqualified applicants get the skills they need to operate machinery at Siemens Energy, a local manufacturer. Statistics show that 3.4 million jobs sit open and unfilled across the country, but it isn’t because of a lack of demand; it’s a lack of skill. In Erie County, leaders estimate that 7,500 jobs are available, awaiting a competent workforce to fill them. Community colleges can help bridge this ever-growing need for a qualified, skilled middle class by providing the training that today’s adults need to compete with young graduates.

The need for such a college in Erie stretches back not just to Bosworth’s 2001 report, but decades, says Judith Fagin, a consultant who briefly led a public-private partnership tasked with drumming up support for the college. Advocates redoubled their efforts four years ago, but now, Fagin says “the situation ... is much worse.” In 2010, the city of Erie and its suburbs all posted graduation rates of 80 percent or higher, and all had rates higher than the state average. But among area residents 25 years of age and older, only 23.3 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher—3 percent lower than the state and more than 4 percent lower than the nation. “We have a high graduation rate and (a low) rate of people who attend postsecondary education. What does that tell you?” asks Erie County Executive Barry Grossman. “It’s the absence of a community college.”

At the same time, Erie County has struggled with a high concentration of poverty, particularly among its youth population. In 2010, the poverty rate in Erie County was 15.6 percent, higher than the rates for both the state (12.4 percent) and the nation (13.8 percent). Among youth, 22.5 percent live below the poverty level. Supporters say that a community college would go a long way toward bringing those numbers down. “There are only two ways to overcome poverty,” says Andre Horton, president of Erie’s NAACP chapter. “You’re going to earn your way out or you’re going to learn your way out.” County Council Chairman Phil Fatica thinks there should be a “public outcry” for a community college. “Our greatest regional asset is our youth, but people don’t see that,” says the former high school teacher and college instructor. “A community college would allow people to further their education as they become aware of how important it is.”

Erie County does have two private and two public four-year universities, as well as six for-profit, two-year institutions. One private university, Mercyhurst, has suburban branches that offer two-year degrees or help students transition to a four-year university. Of the for-profit institutions, many funnel graduates into medical careers, and some also offer training in industrial trades like welding. But these options aren’t for everyone, especially adults. Said Jacob Rouch, vice president of economic development at the Erie Regional Chamber and Growth Partnership: “The university setting is intimidating for folks who are out of work and looking to go back to school.”

As big a problem, though, is money. Many of these programs simply are not affordable for or accessible to the county’s neediest students. Tuition at Mercyhurst University is $27,657; at Gannon University, it’s $25,522; and at Penn State University, Erie Behrend campus, it’s $13,636. Edinboro University is much more affordable at $8,360, but it is about 20 miles from Erie. Tuition at the two-year for-profits range from $7,750 to $15,604, but they still don’t give Erie’s citizens what they need – essentially an extension of high school.

So the Erie Community Foundation, which makes grants to nonprofits to support local partnerships and initiatives, took Bosworth’s recommendation and made a plan. The foundation looked at a number of options, from inviting an existing community college to open a branch campus to challenging local universities to fill the educational holes. In late 2007, the committee recommended a free-standing community college created by Erie County for Erie County. A coalition of leaders in business, government, education, and philanthropy was charged with marketing the concept and drawing up the proposal. Beyond providing low-cost certificate and degree programs aligned with employer needs, Erie County Community College would offer remedial courses as well as general education courses for students who wanted a cheap start to a four-year degree. Down the road, the college planned continuing education programs and dual-enrollment programs for high-schoolers. Tuition would be $2,565 in the first year and increase to $2,835 by year five.

By the time the community college proposal made it to the Erie County Council for approval in June 2010, it was a rock-solid, 110-page plan with widespread support. But it faced one huge hurdle: fear of a property tax increase.

Funding Failure

Community colleges in Pennsylvania are funded by three sources: the students (through tuition payments), the state, and the local government. The local funding is generally provided by the county, but it can also come from the school district or a partnership of school districts. This local “sponsorship,” which is not required in most other states, is problematic, says Diane Bosak, executive director of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges. “It’s a significant financial commitment,” she says. Just two years after the law was passed in 1963, the state board of education commissioned a report that showed the financial burden was too great for many communities, particularly in rural areas. But nothing was done. “So here we are nearly 50 years later and in the same place,” Bosak said. Of the 14 community colleges in Pennsylvania, 10 are sponsored by their counties; the other four are sponsored by groups of school districts.

Nationally, community college start-ups have flat-lined. An explosion in the 1960s, thanks in part to the baby boomer generation, brought almost 500 new standalone colleges across the country. But since then, less than 250 new colleges have opened, and in the last decade, growth has been stagnant. “The idea of a completely new college is very rare,” says Norma Kent, spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges. The last standalone college to be established was in 2009, the College of Western Idaho, and it was funded, in part, by a property tax levy and a $10 million donation from the Albertson Foundation. At the time, the Treasure Valley region, where Boise and the community college sit, billed itself as the most populated area in the country without a community college. After the college was established, Erie County’s Grossman often tied that infamous statistic to northwestern Pennsylvania.

The Erie County Community College was projected to cost $5.9 million in its first year and $12.8 million within five years. In its first year, revenues were projected as follows: $3.3 million from tuition and other sources, such as the bookstore; $1.6 million in state funding; and $1.1 million in local funding. Over the five years, the share of local dollars was projected to grow to $2.7 million. But instead of relying on a property tax increase, which many community colleges rely on as states continue to cut funding for higher education, the proposal counted on other sources. The state’s Gaming Act was amended to allocate a small percentage of table games revenues for the community college. The initial annual contribution was estimated to be $500,000, with an increase of $100,000 each year thereafter. The Erie Community Foundation started a community challenge fund by donating $1 million, the largest donation in its 75-year-history, and it pledged to raise $300,000 for the college annually. Other local businesses followed with smaller donations. Then-Gov. Ed Rendell promised up to $2 million for start-up costs. And the Erie School District pledged in-kind donations of facilities, estimated at $6.3 million over five years.

Still, the County Council wasn’t convinced the county could afford the college. In 2009, early in the debate, officials released a preliminary cost estimate that projected $109 million to be financed with long-term county bonds. It was a worst-case scenario that was based on building a college from scratch, including facilities. The estimate came before any of the donations were pledged, before the amendment on gaming revenues, and before a decision to use donated facilities. But the amount came as such a shock to the council and the public that even though the proposal did not require a tax increase, the community feared that an increase was inevitable.

Those fears were so deeply rooted that when the proposal reached the council for a vote in June 2010, one of the college’s supporters delivered what amounted to a fatal blow. Councilman Joe Giles, a Democrat who has served for 31 years, had up to that point worked on committees to establish the college. But things took an unexpected turn that June day when Giles introduced an amendment that expressed support for the college—the council would have oversight and select the board—only if it didn’t require any money from the county. Giles said he introduced the amendment because the existing college proposal didn’t include necessary “cost-containment” measures. “They (the cost-containment measures) were not meant to be punitive,” Giles says, “but to control our exposure as a county.” Giles said he also resented not being given more notice before the vote. “The normal legislative pattern is that we sit down and talk to each other. … I have trouble with it being hustled,” he said. Council members approved Giles’ amendment 5-1, with one abstention. Republican Ebert “Bill” Beeman voted no, and Democrat Kyle Foust abstained, citing a conflict of interest with his current employer, Mercyhurst University, which he considered a competitor to the community college.

Not surprisingly, the state Department of Education, which must approve plans for community colleges, said the council’s backhanded support for the college wouldn’t fly. Still, the council balked at the idea of committing any county funds. In August, with a 3-3 vote and Foust abstaining, the council shot down state-suggested language changes to the proposal that would make them liable for funding. So the public-private partnership that drafted the initial proposal revised it to reflect the donations pledged and how the community college could be sustained without a cent of county money. But council members weren’t convinced: they opted not to send the community college application to the state for approval, voting 4-2 with Foust abstaining.

Without a local funder, the state wouldn’t give Erie’s proposed college a glance. So County Executive Grossman, a staunch advocate who ran his 2010 election campaign on the creation of a community college, did what any other man passionate about a cause would do: he went begging. He tried to get the Erie School Board to sign on as a sponsor, and even though the district was facing a shortfall of more than $20 million at the time, the board initially did. The school board’s 5-4 vote to support the college came as a surprise.  Board member Eva Tucker Jr., who had opposed the college, abruptly changed his mind after hearing public testimony just before the vote. “I was overwhelmed by that,” he said of the appeals for the school district’s support. A week later, however, even his own wife convinced him he had made a bad choice. “I came to my senses,” he says. “I came to the realization that … the district is already stressed financially.” It could not, he decided, take on the burden of a community college. As allowed by the board bylaws, Tucker rescinded his vote two weeks later, killing brief hopes for a local funder.

Dismal Future

In the end, supporters say, the myth of the tax increase proved impossible to bust. “It completely sabotaged the whole process,” said Rouch. Says former County Executive Mark DiVecchio: “People were afraid it would cost money, but it’s costing them money now in health and human services.” DiVecchio says he absolutely lost his 2009 primary contest because of his support for the college. “People don’t conceptualize what it (a community college) means.” Fiore Leone, a former district administrator, is another councilman who expresses frustration. “Erie absolutely needs a community college,” he says, “especially in this community and the minority community, which I think is discriminated against because they can’t afford to go to college.” (The county of 280,000 is predominantly white—and reflected in the all-white council. Only 10 percent of the county is made up of minorities: 7 percent black, 3 percent Hispanic, and 1 percent Asian.) Yet Leone himself voted against the proposal, citing a conflict of interest with his job at a local architecture firm, which could potentially bid to renovate or build facilities for the college.

To some degree, the stubborn public misunderstandings are due to failures in marketing and communication. Both Fagin and other community leaders, including those at the chamber and at the partnership she headed, known as Rethink Erie, acknowledge that the issue wasn’t marketed correctly or clearly, leading to controversy. “We didn’t come in as a well-oiled machine,” Rouch said. Those failures left supporters even more vulnerable to the anti-tax mindset that was taking over the country, flooding sidewalks outside government offices and being splashed across television screens from the U.S. Capitol. The tea party movement, credited for ousting the Democratic majority in Congress in the midterm elections of 2010, left its mark here as well: U.S. Rep. Kathy Dahlkemper, a Democrat who represented Erie and its neighboring cities, lost her seat to Rep. Mike Kelly, a Republican, and the first man outside of the city of Erie to carry the district in 30 years. Of the state’s 19 Congressional seats, Republicans unseated four Democrats that election, returning the majority to the GOP. In the state’s gubernatorial race, Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, ran his campaign on a “no-tax” pledge and easily won the office vacated by Democrat Gov. Ed Rendell because of term limits.

And so, amid lingering political repercussions, the community college issue just sits. As does the gaming revenue, which collects in an escrow account until 2014 when it will be released for other economic development. (As of May 3, the account held $733,725). Rethink Erie has disbanded. Steadfast proponents talk wearily about the college’s demise, and opponents get defensive as soon as “community college” is mentioned. Councilman Ron “Whitey” Cleaver, a Democrat who supported it, calls it “political suicide” for an elected official to touch the issue. General Electric declined comment when asked whether its workforce needs were being met. But some worried when the company announced it was opening a new locomotive plant in Fort Worth, Texas, rather than expanding operations in Erie. They couldn’t help noting that of the company’s 231 plant locations in 2010, Erie was the only one without access to a community college.

Republican Carol Loll, who voted against the proposal, insists that there are still plenty of higher education options available in Erie. “The education is out there if you look, and it is affordable,” she said. Loll, a retired businesswoman, went to the for-profit Erie Business Center after high school and later to an adult education center. She said that textbooks were her biggest expense. Today, however, textbooks are students’ smallest expense, and tuition at Erie Business Center is $9,364.

It’s these sorts of outdated beliefs—the notion that higher education is the same as it was 20 years ago—that damage local economies like Erie’s. It’s also these ideas that will allow Bosworth’s 2001 report of economic doom to crystalize. High schools will continue to churn out graduates to pricey higher education options. Some of those graduates will turn to one of the area’s for-profit schools, which report graduation rates as low as 53 percent and cohort loan default rates as high as 20 percent. Others will relegate themselves to a lifetime of minimum-wage jobs, supporting the area’s small tourism industry. Jobs left by retiring machinists, welders, and other manufacturing workers will sit open until companies grow frustrated and relocate. Poverty will continue to climb, and those with an education will seek better opportunities outside of Erie. And the brain drain will suck dry what little economic vitality is left.

[1] “FACT SHEET: A Blueprint to Train Two Million Workers for High-Demand Industries through a Community College to Career Fund”; Feb. 13, 2012; http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/02/13/fact-sheet-bluepri...

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