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Merger worries jump the gun


February 9, 2009 (WALB) — State, political and school officials say misinformation is causing unnecessary fear regarding possible merger of Darton College and Albany Technical College.

OK, it’s time the facts came out about regarding the state’s proposed "merger" of two-year academic colleges into the Technical College System, which would include Darton College joining Albany Technical College.

First off, the proposal really isn’t even a proposal yet, it’s a draft. It is part of Gov. Sonny Perdue’s "Tough Choices or Tough Times" Working Group DRAFT Outline of Recommendations released Dec. 15.

A 24-member task force — co-chaired by University of Georgia President Emeritus Charles Knapp and former state legislator Dean Alford — was chosen in July to "determine how Georgia might reform its education policies and practices to cause needed change for its educational system," the reported stated. Perdue asked the group to "identify the policy changes that should be put into place quickly in order to make Georgia’s educational system more competitive in the next 15 years."

The committee outlined several areas in which to improve, however, the one area that has received the most attention came under the short-term goals of the committee. It was letter "d." It stated: Clarify the missions of Georgia’s post-secondary institutions by (a) charging the current Technical College System to administer all technical and two-year academic programs offered in Georgia, thus building a Technical and Academic College System of Georgia (TACSG); b, charging the University System of Georgia to focus exclusively on research, four-year degree programs, and graduate degree programs; and c) creating and enforcing pathways for student transfer between institutions and systems by forming comprehensive articulation agreements that clearly establish procedures governing the transfer of credits from one institution or system to another."

In layman’s terms, the draft would force the state’s eight two-year schools to join the state’s 10 technical schools, five of which are a division of a University System school such as Bainbridge College.

"There’s nothing in the document that says Albany Tech and Darton would merge," Albany Technical College President Anthony Parker said in a recent phone interview. "I don’t want any students from any institution to be fearful. I also have confidence in the (University System of Georgia) Chancellor (Erroll B. Davis Jr.) and the (Technical College System of Georgia) Commissioner (Ron Jackson) that they are addressing this issue and that they will find a strategy. And right now, we’re answering a hypothetical and that’s unfair to do. Right now, it’s unfair to be answering these questions."

Mike Light, the executive director of communications for the Technical College System of Georgia, also wanted concerned citizens to realize the merger proposal was simply a draft.

"All conversations between the TCSG and other stakeholders involved in the ’draft’ report has been very preliminary," he said in an e-mail forwarded from Albany Tech. "As such, it’s impossible for TCSG (to) make additional comment until we receive more formal direction from the Governor’s Office. Any other response from the TCSG at this time would only be speculation, which we prefer not to do."

State Rep. Ed Rynders, R-Leesburg, of District 152 also wanted to make sure Southwest Georgians understood the merger talk of Darton and Albany Tech stemmed simply from a draft.

"I spoke with the Governor’s Office this week and (Education Policy Adviser for Gov. Perdue Erin Hames) and she basically confirmed that we’re in the draft stages now looking at various options," he said in a phone interview. "I specifically asked her if this could be done through an executive order and it’s my opinion that the governor is looking at the legal aspects regarding that. My interpretation was that the Governor’s Office was exploring how this kind of move could be done. ... I didn’t get a direct answer."

However, Bert Brantley, a spokesman for Gov. Perdue, wanted to dispel the ominous nature of Rynders’ executive order query.

"It is not at all likely that we’ll execute an executive order towards this track tomorrow — it is not going to happen," Brantley said. "There’s a sense that (Perdue’s) already got his mind made up and got all these (committee) people together on something he’s already made his mind on and that’s certainly not the case. There’s all kinds of fear. I’m not going to say where we’re going to end up. Who knows where we’re going to end up? He has not even heard these recommendations yet."

And that’s the biggest fact that Brantley wants to get out — the governor hasn’t even seen the 24-member task force committee’s recommendations.

"(Gov. Perdue) had no input on the task force findings," he said. "He did not charge them to come up with recommendations with things he already wanted to be done. He charged them with coming up with recommendations that would improve our education system."

Brantley also wanted to dispel the belief that the new proposal would make it harder to transfer credits from two-year colleges to four-year institutions. He instead pointed out that "c" portion of the draft would actually make it easier.

"The specific intent from the beginning to end is to form a system that is seamless," Brantley said. "A system that someone can come up through from kindergarten through 12th grade, but if they choose to go from this path and if they decide to go from Path A to Path B they would still be able to use the information from Path A. But that’s not working now. We can do better.

"For example, if Darton College has a particular strength and they want to take a class at Albany State or Albany Technical College, that’s what we’d like to do. But, this is very theoretical. This is a draft."

Rynders agreed with Brantley’s assessment.

"A lot of the fear from the students have been in regards to their credits transferring," he said. "The irony is, according to the Governor’s Office, this is one of the main reasons they’re looking at a potential merger is to make sure that all credits transfer to four-year institutions, which doesn’t happen now.

"It’s regrettable that some of the people spreading this misinformation are in positions of leadership and can simply pick up the phones to get the facts."

Brantley also wanted to make sure that concerned citizens didn’t think the 24-member committee purposely lacked representation from two-year schools.

"There’s a notion out there that the governor convened this group without any two-year representation to do away with two-year colleges and that’s just not the case," he said. "You can write that up, but people won’t believe it, but I appreciate you trying.

"The people who have called and e-mailed, they have been very thoughtful with their input, but others have been very emotional are not very helpful and what they’re worried about isn’t on the table," he added. "I would never presume to tell someone how to act or react. I’m not trying to calm folks down, and it would be great if they would. But no, people love their school and their area — we’d be in worse shape if they didn’t. I think they need to realize where the dart really is. The dart is way outside the dartboard."

Such a reality should help many fearful of losing their jobs and other unfounded fears to rest easier. However, that doesn’t stop Darton College President Peter Sireno from wanting to make sure that his college doesn’t get shortchanged when the state’s scrutiny of its educational institutions is completed.

"During these difficult economic times it is understandable that state officials and education leaders would study various potential cost efficiencies in the state’s educational systems," he said in an e-mail. "In-depth research should be undertaken to validate different cost saving solutions, before any final decision is made. In this regard, I am certain the data will reveal the unique contributions that Darton and the other institutions under study contribute to their respective communities and the state; therefore, providing an important cost-benefit dimension to the research."

With the state experiencing a $2.2 billion budget shortfall, it’s clear Perdue will look at possible ways to save money. But it won’t come without receiving public comment.

"At the end of the day, we want to serve students," Brantley said. "We want to enable students to succeed and as easy as possible for them to take advantage of the great assets we have in Georgia, our Technical (College) System is fantastic and our University System, which two-year schools are part of, are great.

"There’s a final report that will come out and let’s (wait and) see ’cause that’s what the governor will see," he added. "Once the final report comes out, read it. Once it’s in his hands, we’ll discuss it. I don’t want to discourage anyone to read the draft report, but there certainly will be plenty of time for the governor to articulate this vision of what things he wants to see go, what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. At this point, this is something the governor hasn’t even seen yet."

By, Ethan Fowler

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