By C.V. Moore
Bridgemont’s president says a merger with Kanawha Valley Community and Technical College is “the smart thing to do” and strengthens, rather than threatens, the position of the Montgomery campus into the future.
A bill that would combine the two schools into a single multi-campus institution at the beginning of the coming fiscal year passed through the Senate Finance Committee on Tuesday with no discussion, and is now on its way to the Senate floor.
Del. David Perry (D-Fayette) says the general consensus of Fayette County’s congressional delegation is that, conceptually, the multi-campus model appears acceptable.
“We look at it as an expansion,” he says. “But what we’ve got to do as a delegation is ensure the administrative offices and main campus, so-called, would remain in Montgomery.”
Based on this year’s enrollment numbers, the new institution would serve 2,651 students total, with a combined full-time enrollment of 1,688.
According to Perry, the delegates want to do everything they can within the bill to ensure the Montgomery campus would remain open and not move to the Dow Center in South Charleston, located 33 miles away.
Jo Harris, president of Bridgemont, says that $4 million was invested in the campus last year for the renovation of Davis Hall, and there’s no intent of leaving Montgomery.
She says the proposed merger poses a number of opportunities, which boil down to the following:
— More program and course offerings to students at both campuses
— Efficiencies reaped by bringing two small colleges that serve overlapping counties under one administrative umbrella
— Cut down on the confusion of two separate work force development divisions working with regional industries
— Provide a single point of contact to cut down on confusion of area high school students transitioning into community college
— Improved financial viability in the face of budget cuts
— More opportunities for innovation at a larger institution
Not a new concept
The idea of consolidating the two schools has some history.
Even before the legislature mandated all community colleges operate as independent institutions in 2008 — triggering Bridgemont’s separation from WVU Tech — Harris says a year-long study asked whether one multi-campus institution should be created from the community college divisions of WVU Tech, West Virginia State College, and Marshall University.
Short of creating one multi-campus institution, the study resulted in the Advantage Valley Community College Group, which forged a joint compact between Bridgemont, Kanawha Valley, and MountWest.
“We work in regional collaboration of non-duplication of programming and have been working in that regard for many years,” she says.
Indeed, Kanawha Valley and Bridgemont even share some major positions. At the moment they have a director of purchasing, financial aid director, and chief financial officer in common.
Another bill floated later would have consolidated any community colleges with fewer than 1,000 students, but it died before it was introduced on the floor of the senate.
Through the Advantage Valley collaboration, Harris says it became apparent that the Marshall campus — MountWest — has a population center in the Huntington area that is large and unique, but that the service regions of Kanawha Valley and Bridgemont overlap.
Harris says the merger concept finally came to fruition this year because of the announced retirement of Kanawha Valley CTC president Joseph Badgley, and because of an impending 7.5 percent budget cut.
How it would work
Because Bridgemont and Kanawha Valley have historically worked hand in hand to avoid duplication, given their close proximity, they’ve developed separate specialties.
Bridgemont focuses on technology programs and Kanawha Valley focuses on health programs.
“This new reorganized entity would present a single comprehensive community and technical college that offers a broad range of health and technology programs,” says Harris. “It’s what most community colleges have in larger areas.”
What the merger would look like for students would depend on their chosen program of study.
If a student from Boomer chose to study in the medical field, he would most likely take lab classes on the South Charleston campus, since moving specialized laboratories would be too expensive.
But he could take classes like English, Math, and Sociology in Montgomery.
The same would work in reverse for a student in South Charleston who was interested in a degree in electrical engineering, for example.
Some labs and classes could be taught via video conference and on the web to cut down on commutes.
The name and branding of the new institution is not determined by the current bill, which rests that decision with a new board composed of members of the two previous boards.
The multi-campus model is in use at other community colleges in the state, including New River CTC, West Virginia Northern, and Southern West Virginia CTC.
Perry says the Fayette County delegation hopes that, if the bill passes, Harris will become the president of the new institution, and that administrative offices will remain in Montgomery.
Some community members are worried the merger could signal an eventual shut down of the Montgomery campus, but Harris does not share the concern.
“I think this proposal will strengthen the Montgomery campus. It will make it very viable and very vibrant. It will not in any manner pose the immanent risk of closing this institution,” says Harris.
“For all of us, change is difficult, but our goal is to make this one institution with multiple campuses. (...) It’s not something new. We’ve given it a lot of thought over the years.”
Bridgemont serves Fayette, Clay, Nicholas, Raleigh, and Kanawha counties — a region that would not change under the current proposal — and Harris says it’s important that a Montgomery campus remain open to serve the entire area.
The merger would have a minimal effect on WVU Tech, Bridgemont’s neighbor institution, according to Harris.
She has met with Dr. Carolyn Long, WVU Tech’s president, about the proposal.
Tech is looking at marketing its “plus-two” programs — which cap off an associate’s degree with two more years of school to earn a bachelor’s degree — more widely in West Virginia.
“Some of the programs that exist at Kanawha Valley are perfect programs to feed into Tech’s plus-two programs, like Health Services Administration,” says Harris.
She sees this as a positive move to strengthen the plus-two programs at both Tech and West Virginia State College.
The current bill provides for a process to abolish positions that exist at both institutions, where duties and responsibilities overlap.
Harris downplays possible layoffs and says Bridgemont will be able to offer more in the way of student support services, for example, by sharing staff with Kanawha Valley.
The efficiencies she points to are saved costs on audits, licenses, and software, for example.