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Need for new community college in Northwestern Pennsylvania questioned

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Students from 11 counties in the Education Consortium of the Upper Allegheny take classes at remote locations connected by video screens, cameras and the Internet. The program has served as a potential model for a planned rural community college in northwest Pennsylvania. Source: Facebook

Pennsylvania lawmakers will spend $1.2 million this year to establish a community college for the state’s northwest corner even as critics question the need for a new state-sponsored school amid budget cuts.

Trustees of the unnamed rural community college plan to meet for the first time next month. They will have one year to develop a program to serve a nine-county region the size of New Jersey with a population of 570,000, about half from Erie County.

Sen. Joseph Scarnati, a Jefferson County Republican and the Senate president pro tempore, represents four of the counties and long has advocated for the school. He said it would “establish a solid foundation for helping students have access to quality, affordable education near their hometowns.”

Education Department spokesman Tim Eller deflected questions about whether the state needs a new community college or can afford it, writing in an email that the agency is “complying with the law passed by the General Assembly.”

Backers say young people in the region need better access to affordable education. The college could have multiple locations connected by the Internet.

Others say nearby schools could fill that need. More than three dozen higher education schools operate in and around the area, including Edinboro University, three branch campuses of Pitt and Penn State universities, a branch campus of Clarion University and a branch of New York’s Jamestown Community College.

The Tribune-Review filed a Right to Know Law request and obtained from the Education Department more than 600 pages of emails, internal documents and reports related to the proposed school and a group called the Education Consortium of the Upper Allegheny.

“At a time when, for the last six to eight years, there have been very significantly restricted resources for community colleges — indeed all of higher education in Pennsylvania — the question becomes, ‘What’s the smart way to provide that access?’” said Jim Linksz, former president of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges and former president of Bucks County Community College.

“I don’t doubt for a second that there’s a population out there that could use increased access to a college education,” said Ken Mash, president of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties, the union representing professors at the state’s 14 publicly owned schools. “I think though, when it comes to servicing those students, then we get into a mix of politics and the rest.”

Pennsylvania has neglected the educational needs of northwest residents, said Dick McDowell, the former president — now president emeritus — at the University of Pittsburgh’s Bradford campus. He chaired the consortium and has been appointed to the proposed school’s board of trustees.

The state Board of Education approved a master plan in 1971 for 28 community colleges across the state. Fourteen exist. One in Williamsport was abandoned before it started.

In addition, the Northwest Pennsylvania Technical Institute, started in 1992 and grew to reach across 14 counties of Northwestern Pennsylvania. It closed in 2001, owing the state about $16 million, according to the Pennsylvania Auditor General’s Office.

The Upper Allegheny consortium is meant to be a bridge to the new school, organizers said. It received $480,000 from the Education Department last year and contracted with Gannon University, a private school in Erie, for reduced-tuition classes at sites in 11 counties. The consortium covers Clarion, Clearfield and Jefferson counties, but not Erie County.

Duane A. Vicini, a retired superintendent of Forest Area Schools and the consortium’s president, said potential students miss out when they lack the grades or money to get into a four-year college.

Before pushing to create a school, supporters tried to persuade community colleges in Butler County and Harrisburg to expand, McDowell said. They could not reach agreement.

“It’s not how you pay for it; it’s facing up to the responsibility that a state has,” McDowell said. “Every state except Pennsylvania has strategically located community colleges throughout the state. Pennsylvania has not.”

The Trib’s review of documents found:

• Upper Allegheny paid $4,000 for accounting services to McDowell’s company, Chandler Valley Associates, and hired its sole employee as the group’s treasurer.

“It’s my firm,” McDowell said. “Remember, we’re doing this on a shoestring operation, and Chandler Valley Associates is also a shoestring operation. … I don’t see any conflict of interest. It’s legitimate.”

• Former consortium Chairman Francis Grandinetti worked at Gannon as a professor when the group contracted with the university.

Gannon won the contract because it offered the lowest tuition costs — $175 per credit — in response to a request for proposals, Vicini said. The consortium budgeted $248,000 per year in state grants for Gannon each of the past two years.

Grandinetti no longer works for Gannon and is not on Upper Allegheny’s board. He could not be reached for comment.

Grandinetti’s roles did not factor into the agreement, said Linda Fleming, dean of Gannon’s College of Humanities, Education and Social Science.

“These are people who lived and worked in education in that region and saw a need, and created the consortium to try to come up with a solution to meet that need,” Fleming said. “They have a genuine interest in education of the people in northern Pennsylvania.”

• The state paid Gannon tuition for 36 full-time students each semester, even if fewer enrolled. Gannon returned money for unfilled slots to Upper Allegheny, which is allowed to keep it for operational expenses, Eller said. The group’s March board minutes show that Gannon paid the consortium $22,842.

• The consortium paid $48,200 in private money last year to hire Harrisburg lobbying firm Long, Nyquist & Associates. Officials met with key lawmakers to support legislation creating the college.

“Our job was to, working with (the consortium), build a broad base of support in the Legislature for the project, which we successfully did,” lobbyist Megan Crompton said.

She is married to Scarnati’s chief of staff but her contact in his office was Greg Mahon, a budget and policy specialist, who has been appointed as a trustee to the school.

“No lobbying of Senator Scarnati or his staff was really required, since the senator had been pushing the need for the community college for families in his area for a long time,” Crompton wrote in an email.

McDowell said he hired the lobbyist because he wanted help in Harrisburg to track the legislation and make contacts.

“Lobbyists are the eyes and ears of their clients,” McDowell said. “There’s nothing wrong with lobbying. It should not be a dirty word.”

Andrew Conte is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7835 or [email protected].

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