(*This story has been updated to include comment from Empower Erie co-founder Ron DiNicola and Erie County Councilman Carl Anderson.)
ERIE, Pa. — Capping a three-year push by advocates, the state Board of Education has approved Erie County’s application to establish a new community college, despite opposition from one of the state Legislature’s most powerful Republican lawmakers.
The board voted 9-6 in favor of the application during a virtual session on Thursday. The vote came after the regulatory panel spent two days taking testimony on the application.
The board’s vote gives county officials and Empower Erie, the non-profit group established to lead the fight for the college, 60 days to establish a board of trustees. The board will then make decisions about the school’s physical location, finalize course offerings and generally prepare the community college to offer classes.
“This is a critical time, a tipping point, for this board to make a decision and say that everyone matters” and deserves an opportunity to succeed,” board member Jim Barker, a yes vote, said of Erie County’s application.
The state board’s chairperson, Karen Farmer-White voiced her support prior to the vote as well. “I’m not convinced that NPRC gives the type of support [to students and the community] I am talking about and considering,” she said. “I am definitely in support of this motion.”
“It was very exciting,” Ron DiNicola, Empower Erie’s co-founder, told the Capital-Star. “We knew it was going to be a close vote …And the margin was actually a little [closer] than we had anticipated. So we were very grateful because it meant that we made the case on the merits to the satisfaction of people from both political parties, which was gratifying.
“I think it’s a good moment to reflect for the benefit of the community,” DiNicola continued. “You know what has happened is we achieved a milestone educational opportunity for our citizens, which is significant. But we have also, I think as a community. learned a valuable lesson in what’s possible … This is a milestone moment because I think it’s one of the most significant public policy issues in our community’s history.”
Erie County Councilman Carl Anderson told the Capital-Star that he knows college backers have “a lot of work left to do, but we’ve made the promise that we are going to make this a first rate facility and I think the board is looking at Erie’s plan as a model for changing education across Pennsylvania.”
“We are absolutely elated. It is kind of a surreal moment for everyone,” Anderson said.
This month marks the three year anniversary of Empower Erie originally submitting their proposal for a community college to the state board.
State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, who helped the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (NPRC) was the application’s most high-profile opponent. Scarnati and his allies have argued that Erie County already has a community college in NPRC.
“With the funding challenges facing higher education today, and the unsustainability of many higher educational institutions trying to keep their doors open, it would be fiscally irresponsible for Pennsylvania to establish another community college,” Scarnati, R-Jefferson, wrote in an op-ed published on his Senate website.
In June 2017, Erie County and Empower Erie thought that a decision would take time, but overall be quite swift. Supporters were sure that the report they had prepared would easily move through the acceptance process.
Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkepmer said the proposed plan clearly outlined Erie County meeting the three criteria set forth by the Community College Act of 1963.
“The state board of education and their report said there is an unmet need, and that included the courses being offered at NPRC,” Dahlkemper told the Capital-Star in March. “So I don’t know why the senator is anti-education for Erie County residents, but he is the reason why we are at where we’re at.”
On March 10, Scarnati told the Capital-Star that “the whole financial premise of this endeavor is flawed,” referring to the proposed plan.
In November of 2019, the board met to discuss Erie’s plan and Scarnati’s argument.
According to the minutes of that meeting the board noted that “three factors – sufficient population to sustain enrollment, sufficient local wealth, and inadequate service to the region by existing higher education providers – must be met in order for the plan to be approved.”
At that time, the board concluded that another session was needed so officials could ask questions to witnesses presented by Erie County and NPRC.
To answer those remaining questions, the board scheduled a public evidentiary hearing for March 18 in Erie County. Supporters had hoped that this would be the final chapter in a multi-year saga, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the hearing was postponed.
Erie County Council President Andre Horton said in a virtual press conference on April 29 that a vote is more important now as “COVID-19 has illuminated the lack of equity, particularly in technology in the Erie School District.”
Under the Community College Act, for a community college to be established in Pennsylvania, there must be sufficient population to support a college, sufficient funding, and an unmet need in the area.
During Thursday’s virtual hearing Greg Mahon, Scarnati’s chief of staff and a member of NPRC’s board of trustees, said that NPRC “does everything a community college does, but it does not have the word ‘community’ in it.”
Ultimately, board members disagreed.
Correspondent Hannah McDonald covers Erie and northwestern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star. Follow her on Twitter @HannahMcD0nald.