Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College and the 57 other community colleges across the state would lose local control if a Republican-sponsored bill, now moving through the North Carolina legislature, becomes law.
“It’s a complete, totally naked power grab,” said Sen. Julie Mayfield. “It’s obscene.”
The proposed legislation, Senate Bill 692, would expand the power of the Republican-dominated General Assembly to appoint the majority of a community college’s board of trustees, usurping appointments that currently are made by the governor and local school boards.
It would also shift power at the North Carolina Community College System, making the selection of the system president subject to General Assembly confirmation, and give the system president the power to reject locally chosen college presidents.
Senate Bill 692 is one of several education-related bills advanced by the Republican supermajority in the General Assembly in the current session. Others would eliminate academic tenure, require universities to report all non-instructional research to the General Assembly, and require all students to take a new American history and government course designed by lawmakers rather than by faculty.
The North Carolina community college system of 58 colleges is the second largest in the nation, after California, in terms of number of schools. Spurred by then-governor Terry Sanford and focused on workforce development, the system was established by the General Assembly in 1963 and has grown to an enrollment of over 574,000 students in 2021-2022.
A-B Tech alone has nearly 18,000 students. Like other community colleges, it provides college transfer credit for four-year institutions, technical training (often working with specific local employers), vocational training, and adult continuing education.
Republicans For, Democrats Against
Sen. Amy Galey (R-Alamance), the bill’s sponsor and chair of the Education Committee, told Asheville Watchdog in an email that the bill was referred back to the Education Committee where it was revised on Monday, May 1, from an earlier, more draconian version April 10.
This suggests, Mayfield said, that the original bill lacked enough Republican votes to pass and overcome any potential veto by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.
Mayfield said she and her Democratic colleagues will vote against it.
If the legislation passes, “It’s going to crack the foundation of our community college system,” said Joe Barwick, a long-time veteran of the North Carolina community college system and a member of the A-B Tech board of trustees.
Galey said in an April 10 news release that the bill is an effort “to create a more efficient and nimble system to meet our current workforce development needs.”
Barwick said he disagreed. “It’s not going to increase any efficiency, and it’s not going to increase any effectiveness. It will just shift power to the legislature,” he said.
The bill would take away 8 of the 12 appointments to A-B Tech’s board of trustees — the four appointments made by the governor and the four made by local school boards — and place them instead in the hands of the General Assembly in Raleigh. Instead of those local appointments, four would be made by the Senate, and four by the House. The remaining four would still be made by county commissioners.
The original bill mandated that only the county commission where the community college is headquartered would be allowed to make appointments. The revised bill now allows for both the Buncombe County Commission and the Madison County Commission to have jointly made appointments to the A-B Tech Board.
“Education is becoming increasingly politicized and Senate Bill 692 continues to exacerbate that trend,” Buncombe County Commissioner Amanda Edwards said. “And that, to me, as an elected leader, is the wrong direction for education.”
Besides undermining local community college control, the bill would shift power at the State Board of Community Colleges. While that board would still choose the system president, the choice would now have to be confirmed by the General Assembly.
The state system president would also be able to reject the choice of A-B Tech’s Board when it chooses the next president for the college. The current president, John Gossett, was appointed in 2020.
“The president of the Community College System needs to be able to run the system,” Sen. Todd Johnson (R-Cabarrus) said in a news release.
Effective as of July 1, 2027, the bill would also shift the composition of the state board, removing the governor’s power to appoint 10 members and shifting those appointments to the General Assembly. It would also remove the appointment of a non-voting student government representative. Current members appointed by the governor are to serve their terms, but be replaced over time by the General Assembly.
Importantly for A-B Tech, the bill would alter its board of trustees immediately when the bill is passed and becomes law. Current trustees appointed by Gov. Cooper and those appointed by the Buncombe and Madison school boards will serve the remainder of their terms but be replaced over time by the General Assembly’s appointees. A local non-voting student representative remains included.
“This is another power grab made possible by a legislature that wants to be able to override local prerogatives,” said former Democratic Sen. Terry Van Duyn, who is one of Governor Roy Cooper’s appointments to the State Board of Community Colleges.
“The taxpayers of Buncombe County directly support A-B Tech with local taxes. They understand the needs of their community because they live and work here,” Van Duyn said. “Republicans in the General Assembly think they should be able to appoint the majority of the seats on A-B Tech’s Board. That’s just wrong.”
Control Shifts to Raleigh
Edwards said she was particularly concerned with the removal of appointments by the local boards of education. “We still need those K-through-12 voices on the trustees, and taking power away from our local school boards is very concerning” she said.
“I do feel like it’s important to have local people, issues, and needs represented on our community college board of trustees,” said Ann Franklin, chair of the Buncombe County School Board.
Amy Churchill, the vice chair of the Buncombe County School Board and a Republican, said, “I believe it is best practice to allow for local control whenever decisions are being made that have a direct impact on our community. Allowing the local boards of education to appoint who they feel will best serve our students is paramount to providing our students the opportunity to experience a robust post secondary education during their high school years and beyond.”
“We are deeply concerned over Senate Bill 692,” said Karen Blevins, chair of the Madison County School Board. “To eliminate our ability to have representation on the A-B Tech Board of Trustees is alarming. We need a representative on the board to bridge the needs of high school students with the community college.”
Blevins said that many students from the small rural district attend A-B Tech to further their education. “The member of the trustees who represents the school system is a voice for these students,” she said.
The issue of local governance of the community colleges goes back to its early days. “The community college system was set up for local governance,” Barwick said. “It was the idea that local people, intelligent community members active in their communities” would know what was needed in their community college.
“Nobody is proposing it (the Senate bill) is going to increase our student enrollments or our ability to deal with industry and help them with their workforce training,” Barwick said. “It’s not going to do anything that will improve the system. But it’s clearly a power grab.”
[Editor’s note: This article was updated to include revisions the Senate Education Committee made to the proposed bill on May 1, and comments from the Madison County School Board chair.]
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. Barbara Durr is a former correspondent for The Financial Times of London. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.