I attended the first Bevill State Community College town hall meeting in Sumiton. The one in Hamilton is set for tonight at 6 p.m., followed by Jasper on Monday and Fayette a week from tonight. All …
I attended the first Bevill State Community College town hall meeting in Sumiton. The one in Hamilton is set for tonight at 6 p.m., followed by Jasper on Monday and Fayette a week from tonight. All indications are that a number of people in Hamilton will want to ask questions about the cuts there, as they suffered a bunch.
In a sense, I want to be careful. Bevill State is a major institution that we need for this area. Not just in Walker County, but in Fayette and Marion and Pickens counties as well. It was noted by Dr. Kim Ennis, the new college president, that Hamilton, Jasper and Sumiton are all situated close to U.S. Interstate 22, meaning the college can be used to great advantage for economic development.
In order to properly have workforce development, we will need the college to be involved in training, as the state appears to be gearing to make that a bigger emphasis, with more flexibility to train.
That was alluded to by Ennis, as she said that industry can't wait sometimes for an entire semester for training. They want training in a matter of weeks, maybe a couple of months.
At the same time, Ennis said she found out in 2017, while she was interim president, that the college had been suffering deficits for five years. It is a little fuzzy about how we got into that situation, although the college now is interviewing for a chief fiscal officer. Ennis noted that comparing to other colleges doesn't help, because Bevill is far flung with duplicating business offices and 55 buildings to maintain, etc. It is a unique community college, with a $30 million budget that is only half funded by the state. About $23 million of the $30 million involves salaries and benefits.
Moreover, the state has come up with a new formula for determining budgets, called strategic enrollment management to supposedly make sure of student success in completing courses, using 10 different matrix. About 10 percent of the budget is already based on that, and it will grow from there in the next few years.
Ennis said to make a program viable, it takes having about eight graduates. Some programs are not reaching that mark. However, what about the ones who only need a certificate of training? I took it from Ennis the state is putting on pressure about the deficit. She more or less indicated the deficit may need dealing with first; the flexibility would come later.
However, that area is just one of many questions people in Sumiton had. Ennis noted she had data backing up the decisions. She was asked if she had the data on hand for the meeting. She didn't, but said they could apply online to get the information. I know some people have even question who did the study. Many are questioning about having cuts while athletics is ongoing. (I know for a fact Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, secured funding for restarting athletics; I want to say it was six figures, but I haven't found the figures yet to confirm.) And how much were (and maybe are) the deficits in terms of figures and divisions?
They questioned how much the college reached out to local industry for help. Ennis did say that she wants to work with businesses on partnerships. I hope that comes to pass, because if some business were to make a major commitment, that could help to sustain some of these classes.
Obviously, Bevill State has some budget problems that have not been handled for some time. How we address those issues is the question. I don't pretend to be the expert. I don't even pretend to be the reporter, as Nicole Smith is handling the story. I am going to some of the meetings to monitor. Having gone to the Fayette campus and covered it some in my youth, and covered the campuses in Walker and Marion counties over the years, and knowing their importance, it is a subject close to my heart. I imagine it also puts me in an awkward position, as I don't want to raise the banner for one campus over another in regional rivalry. I mean that.
I don't know that much can or will be done to change the course we are on. Some uncomfortable actions will be needed. However, I think I can say this could have been rolled out better, and perhaps more discussions could have been held with industry, faculty, students and public officials. Many were caught flat-footed, and one senses that there has been a drive to control the flow of information. Interviews with Ennis have been delayed until after the town halls; I feel they should have been before the meetings so people could have ask more informed questions. Even the town meetings are limited to 60 minutes and the first presentation took up 35 minutes of that. (Fortunately, Ennis met with people in a huddle after Thursday night's meeting, talking some more.) I think leaders on the new state two-year board should be present to speak, too.
All I can say is that many people are concerned on both ends of the service district. I would hope that some of their questions can be answered, and that Bevill State will be transparent in this process. At the same time, the times are a-changin', certainly with the advent of a new state board, set up with business-friendly people overseeing these institutions. A new model is not unexpected, and with deficits for five years straight, something had to happen. We will need more information and cooperations from the system's leaders, but we also need as a community to have some patience and understanding.
I just worry that if the communities and officials are too protective of their turf, if information is restricted and if trust is broken between those who serve and those who are being served, this whole thing could be unraveled. At that point, we would indeed see Bevill State start to shrink, and that could be devastating for the whole area. I pray it doesn't come to that. In the end, we all need to work together to save Bevill State for our future.