Now What? 

Community college measure's passage leaves questions, and some answers

Laird Maxwell's ears must be burning. As the campaign to pass the new community college taxing district came down to the wire, any organized opposition to the measure was hard to find. Instead, backers of the new taxing district had to contend with the usual Idaho proclivity to "just say no" to new taxes.

It was Maxwell, the former director of Idahoans For Tax Reform, who was always able to rally the anti-tax crowd. Now that he's left the state, that movement appears to have gone to ground.

Maxwell's style of campaigning may not have worked, anyway. Backers of the new tax district came from across the political spectrum, and all involved brought money and energy to the effort.

The successful passage of the new community college district did make some history in Idaho. The new College of Western Idaho, out in Nampa, is the first state-supported community college in the Treasure Valley. Now it remains to be seen just how the election will change life in this area, and BW decided to have a look.

: --Shea Andersen:

It took House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, a Republican from Star, less than a day to learn his own lesson about the success of the community college initiative.

"It's proof that the supermajority works," Moyle said. "They had a vote. It passed. No need for changes."

Moyle has weathered a lot of flak for his work in the Idaho Legislature, pushing back against changes to the Idaho election law that requires a two-thirds majority--a supermajority--to pass taxation measures. Advocates of a better-funded transit system in the Treasure Valley chafed when Moyle led his party to defeat a proposal that would have allowed for a simple majority when it came to passing a transit levy.

"There was this perceived problem that didn't exist," Moyle said. "The system works." The system works, all right, if you've got nearly a half-million dollars to spend on a comprehensive advertising campaign and an innovative get-out-the-vote push. Organizers for the Community College Yes effort spent so much getting the vote together they're likely to go into debt, said campaign manager Jason Lehosit. For Lehosit, who traditionally represents candidates running for office who need only to get one vote over the 50 percent mark, shooting for the supermajority was a high hurdle--and an education.

"When I was asked three months ago to take this on, I don't know if I was cocky or stupid," Lehosit said. "But I said, 'Sure, we can get that.' I didn't realize how difficult it was to get 67 percent. Sixty-seven percent is huge."

It was a margin of victory, he said, that any candidate would covet.

"There isn't a candidate anywhere that wouldn't like to get 67 percent," Lehosit said. "George Bush won by three percentage points, and it's a mandate."

Yes, the pro-community-college folks had impressive backing in the campaign. Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter backed it. Mayor Dave Bieter backed it. Democratic lawmakers went door-to-door for it. The Idaho Statesman opined regularly and effusively in favor of the measure.

Still, when the numbers came back on Wednesday morning, May 23, observers from both sides of the aisle were surprised to find that the measure had passed, by a squeaker of a margin: a 68 percent vote, the average of a 71 percent Ada County vote and a 62 percent Canyon County vote.

Democrats were quick to seize upon the victory as evidence that their party had come out in force and played an important role in the success.

"Democrats have supported the concept of community colleges for many years in Idaho, and I am particularly proud of our legislators and activists who contributed to this effort," gushed Idaho Democratic Party chairman Richard Stallings in a prepared statement. "Some led this effort behind the scenes, while some answered the call to 'soldier in the subdivisions,' knocking on doors and talking about the need for this bold new school."

But Otter, who was out of town on the day of the election, also didn't hesitate to chime in.

"The community college campaign, and the degree to which voters embraced it, speaks volumes about our state and community commitment to creating opportunities right here at home," Otter said in a prepared statement. "This victory will make available more affordable education and training, more and better jobs, an even stronger economy and most of all, a new and better chance at success for thousands of people."

Now, the election is likely to serve as a model. If you want a supermajority, you'd better have a super-campaign.

: --Shea Andersen

Robert McQuade has been here before. The Ada County assessor has the unpopular job of telling people how high their property taxes are going to go. Last year, before the Idaho Legislature changed property tax bills to remove public schools maintenance and operations levies from them, McQuade faced a near-revolt.

Now, with the passage of the community college levy, he'll have to tell property owners about another tax hike.

It's not clear yet just how much they'll have to spend. Although the Community College Yes campaign sold voters on an $11 per $100,000 in taxable property value, that's not the whole story. By law, the district is allowed as much as $125 per $100,000 of assessed value.

"That's a huge number," said Alan Dornfest with the Idaho Tax Commission. But, of course, it's not necessarily what the new trustees of the community college, yet to be named, will choose to levy.

"Politically, is it prudent to take the maximum? That's really the question," Dornfest said.

Of course, it's not. Imagine if the backers of the community college tried to get voters to approve a levy of that size. Organizers for the campaign called that high levy mark "highly unlikely."

Not that they are in a position to know. The actual levy rate will be determined by a five-member board of trustees for the new community college. Those board members will first be appointed by the State Board of Education. After that, trustees will be elected to the board by voters in the two-county district.

Timing is also important here. Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter and the state Legislature have already allotted $5 million in start-up money for the school, which could also receive annual funding from federal programs, private donations and tuition fees.

They'll need that initial funding hit, because money from taxpayers won't flow into the system until next year.

According to state law, the new district can't levy any new property taxes until September of 2008. The first tax bill will hit taxpayers' doorsteps in November 2008, right when they're about to go to the polls for the general election. Money from that billing cycle won't actually get to the new college's coffers until January 2009.

But the Legislature could become an ongoing funding source, too. Lehosit said it is yet unknown how much funding the Legislature would continue to provide if the college becomes a reality, but some money sources are already being lined up. Among them are roughly $7 million in state professional technical funds, which now go to Boise State's for the Larry Selland College of Applied Technology.

With last week's successful vote, Boise State will turn over operation of the school, along with land and facilities located on a 160-acre university-owned parcel in Nampa.

Really want your tax bill to go down? Get neighbors from other counties to join the taxing district. If other counties come in, the bills could be spread out among a broader tax base, lowering everyone's bill.

: --Shea Andersen

While details on the College of Western Idaho are still in the realm of the theoretical, Boise businesses see one clear reality--it can't come soon enough.

From a better-educated workforce, to having an outlet for advanced training, business leaders across the area see the creation of a community college as nothing but a benefit.

"[Approval is] virtually unanimous," said Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. "We haven't heard any negative response at all, and we've gotten supportive messages from members across the state.

"It's in their best interest to have a community college here," he said. "It has to do with two things: One, having a population that has access to advanced education in a variety of areas--either through Boise State University or a community college--that's good for an entire community, and therefore good for the businesses there. Two, the employees that come from those universities and colleges that can be hired by those employers."

Like IACI, the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce was an early supporter of the community college initiative. For Ray Stark, senior vice president of the chamber, the May 22 vote was validation for years of building community support.

"The community college will provide many training and education opportunities for a wide variety of students," he said. "This will ultimately provide a better-trained workforce for the valley. A better-trained workforce will command higher salaries, which will, hopefully, increase income levels throughout southwest Idaho."

Karen Sander, executive director of the Downtown Boise Business Association, agreed that a community college serves the best interest of all parties. "It made a lot of sense for them to have the option for their workers to have a place to continue their education," she said. "And an educated workforce is always a good thing."

Both Stark and LaBeau said a community college offers not only less-expensive classes, but the chance to tailor class offerings to the needs of area businesses. Business leaders are hoping that once a board of trustees is appointed to lead the new school, it will select an administration willing to work closely with area businesses to address specific needs.

"The very theory of a community college is to be responsive to the market in a particular area," LaBeau said. "I could see them having some trades and perhaps some medical trades as well ... some high tech, pre-engineering, construction, it's entirely responsive to the market they're serving."

Business leaders also see the school as a tool to attract new businesses to the area.

"The biggest part of this is as an economic development tool," Sander said. "It's one of the top criteria for site selectors. Talk to anyone out there doing economic development, and it's a priority."

"It's always been sort of a black mark against us when businesses look at relocation," LaBeau said.

Stark added that he's seen numerous examples of companies considering expanding to the area, but getting turned-off by the lack of a community college. "When they came to our area, they would ask to meet with the local community college," he said. "In the past they've visited with the professional technical college within Boise State, but they were looking for a stand-alone, locally controlled community college."

Mark Arend, editor and chief of Atlanta, Ga.-based Site Selection Magazine agreed that the presence of a strong community college is a big draw for prospective businesses.

"It can be quite important for a company looking for worker training programs," he said. Other top factors for companies choosing a location include availability of labor, cost of labor, affordable real estate and the cost of energy.

"It cannot hurt a community to have a good community college infrastructurein place."

: --Deanna Darr

They are excited about the opportunity and thrilled about the community support,but higher education officials in the Treasure Valley say there are just too manyunknowns about the new community college to predict how it will fit into the valley's education scene.

"There are some very good minds involved in that process," said Eric Ellis, public information officer for Treasure Valley Community College, an Ontario, Ore.-based college with an extension center in Caldwell. "They're going to do a good job identifying what's next, but there's a lot of territorialism in education, and everybody's going to have a slightly different vision, and it's going to be really intriguing to see how that vision gets expressed and executed."

While voters approved creating a taxing district to help fund the school, no specifics have been established--not the guiding principles of the school, its class offerings, faculty, administration, formal location, relationship with Boise State or budget. The next step is for the Idaho State Board of Education to appoint the school's five-member board of trustees, which will then hire an administration to guide the formation of the school.

Mark Browning, spokesman for the Board of Education, said the board will begin taking applications for the positions later this week, and may call a special meeting in June in order to get the trustees appointed by July.

The new trustees will then have to decide what the school will be, and what kind of relationship it will have--if any--with Boise State.

The university has already offered a large package to the new school, including use of land and facilities at its Boise State West campus near the Idaho Center in Nampa, transferring the Larry Selland College of Applied Technology along with the federal funds attached to the college, and assistance getting the community college up and running.

"Our proposal brings a lot to the table," said Frank Zang, Boise State spokesperson, adding the university hopes to play a large role in the formation of the new school, dubbed the College of Western Idaho. But Boise State officials understand that nothing is written in stone. "The decision still lies with the state board and the trustees. It's not an automatic handoff from voter approval to [Boise State]."

The Selland College is one of eight colleges at Boise State, and is home to roughly 1,200 students studying adult basic education or working toward two-year degree programs, including child care, machinist, dental assistant and accounting, among others.

Zang said the university would like to transfer these community college-type offerings so it can free-up space on its main campus and focus on graduate-level programs. "It's challenging to be both a community college and a metropolitan research university,"he said.

Under Boise State's current proposal, the university would serve as an umbrella over CWI as it works to establish itself and earn its own accreditation. Until then, classes would be recognized under Boise State's national and regional accreditation.

Boise State is making it clear, though, that this will not be a permanent role, and Zang added that the use of the West Campus does not mean the university is giving, or even selling, the facilities or land to CWI.

The future relationship with the community college is even less clear for TVCC, which operates as a self-sustaining entity. Oregon public funds cannot be spent on an Idaho school. TVCC opened in Caldwell four years ago and has grown to seven classrooms and roughly 600 students.

While Ellis said the school would still like to expand its offerings, no one is quite sure how CWI will fit into the picture.

"We really have, both before the election and now after, taken the attitude that there is a significant population that is unserved and there will be ... a great enough market for multiple agencies to serve it," he said.

Ellis said there are obvious concerns about students being drawn away from TVCC, but the school still doesn't know how its recruiting efforts will change.

"The model the district settles on over there will have a significant impact," he said. "The proposal didn't do anything more than set up a district. Until they settle on that, it's hard to know if their model will really dramatically impact us."

TVCC will be looking for ways to partner with the CWI once the new school's identity is defined, Ellis said.

But until then, the future is still murky. "It's hard for anyone to make any hard and fast plans," Ellis said.

: --Deanna Darr

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