Local and state leaders in Western North Carolina are vigorously opposing a cost-savings plan to consolidate administrations of 15 of the state’s smallest community colleges, including those of Haywood Community College and Southwestern Community College.

A joint state legislative committee on government efficiency has recommended merging the leadership of community colleges with fewer than 3,000 fulltime students. The group said this would save taxpayers about $5 million a year.

“I’m still not clear in my own mind about what exactly we are try to accomplish through this, except to save a little bit on administration,” said Bill Upton, a Haywood County commissioner and a retired educator of 38 years. “But what is it going to cost? Ultimately, I think it would be the staff and students who would suffer.”

Scott Ralls, president of the state’s community college system, agreed with Upton, saying what isn’t clear on a simple spreadsheet “is the role of community in community colleges.”

SEE ALSO: Are community colleges efficient?

“HCC, for example, is the best community college in the nation — for Haywood County,” Ralls said in an interview last week at Haywood Community College. He was in town for a meeting of the state’s community college presidents.

Over the decades, counties and schools such as Haywood County and HCC have together created this community-unique college, Ralls said, with the programs and the instructors tailored to fit the needs of Haywood County’s residents. Start lumping the leadership of various community colleges together, and you risk destroying what is arguably one of the best community college systems in the U.S., he said.

“The nature of these colleges would not be as colleges anymore, but as the campuses of other colleges,” Ralls said.

Any potential savings would be negated by the heavy toll, in terms of the loss of its colleges, to the communities involved, Ralls said.

HCC President Rose Johnson serves as an example of what intricate roles a community college leader plays in the lives of residents. Johnson became president of HCC in January 2006.

She helped start a green initiative through the chamber. She has volunteered on the elk project in Cataloochee Valley. And Johnson has worked directly with local businesses such as Evergreen Packaging to tailor employee training.

President Ralls said the smaller, rural colleges listed in the report for consolidation provide education and training in 36 counties with an average unemployment rate of 11 percent, compared to the current state average of 9.7 percent. They include nearly half of the state’s 40 most economically depressed counties.

Additionally, 23 percent of the funding for the state community college systems comes now via the support of local county commission boards.

On a practical level, Ralls said, how willing will those community leaders be to keep chipping in dollars if local control is jerked away?

 

Local support could erode, but savings could mount

Probably not very willing at all, said Conrad Burrell, chairman of Southwestern Community College’s Board of Trustees and a former Jackson County commissioner.

“The state’s system was created to serve the needs of the community, and this would be taking away from the community,” Burrell said. “We’re all different, with each of our colleges responding to the differences in the communities. I feel this would be detrimental, and it would be wrong.”

But on paper, and given the difficult economic times, the proposal would appear to have merits. Additionally, SCC seems to exist as a perfect model of how multiple counties actually can be served — and served very well indeed — by a centralized administration. SCC is headquartered in Sylva, with facilities in Macon, Swain, Cashiers and on the Cherokee Indian Reservation.

Twenty community colleges in North Carolina, such as SCC, already currently serve more than one county.

“The high level of local control that allows colleges leeway in how they implement administrative structures and activities is staunchly supported by college administrators, but it reduces the efficiency of the colleges and the system office,” the report notes. “Back-office functions — administrative activities that do not necessarily require face-to-face interactions, such as payroll or receiving — are performed at every college, resulting in 58 iterations of each activity.”

It’s cheaper per student, too, the larger the college, with the report finding that cost ranged from $447 to $1,679 for each student. As for administrative costs at colleges with fewer than 3,000 fulltime students, the cost per student averaged $983; this compared with $647 at larger institutions.

“Larger colleges benefited from economies of scale,” the report notes.  

The mergers would involve combining the administrations of two or more colleges into one, creating a multi-campus college. The government group suggested such functions such as senior administration, financial services, human resources, public information, institutional information and information technology could merge.

In turn, the newly merged administration would determine the staff needed at each campus to ensure smooth operations of the college.  

The State Board of Community Colleges would be responsible for determining the actual number of mergers based on the groupings of colleges selected. The government group noted that, assuming each merger involves two schools within 30 miles of each other, at least one of which is a small school, there would be 15 mergers. However, the system could opt to merge three or more schools to create one multi-campus college under the recommendation.

 

Not so fast

But those educators actually working in the state community college system warn to look deeper.

“If you’re just materialistic in looking at the numbers, maybe it looks good,” said Donald Tomas, who became SCC’s president just at the beginning of this month. “SCC is sitting at 2,800 students right now, with double-digit growth (over the past few years) — are they projecting all this out a few years?”

An apparent lack of projecting into the future contained in the report, and of getting into the nitty-gritty of the numbers actually used to compile the recommendations, is what Tomas said disturbs him the most when he looks at such sweeping recommendations.

“What is the criteria that they are using?” he said. “If you just look at the savings it all sounds good. Until, that is, you get behind the scenes and really try to understand what they are looking at.”

Tomas seems to make a valid point: the report, one that if adopted would make irrevocable changes in the name of saving dollars to North Carolina’s community college system, is just 32 pages in length. It does not assess the rapid growth currently being experienced by the state’s community colleges and how that will play out in the future, nor does it discuss more abstract concepts, including whether there would be continuing local funding support if the recommendations were adopted.

It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the community college system in North Carolina: The state’s community colleges serve some 243,854 fulltime students, with enrollment over the past few years (since the recession started) increasing by 28 percent, with no drop in numbers anticipated, according to President Ralls.

Jackson County Manager Chuck Wooten, who served as the vice chancellor of administration and finance for Western Carolina University before retiring after a 30-year career as an educator, said he believes there are too many unanswered questions to take such a huge gamble for relatively small apparent gain.

“Obviously, the identity with a local community college is important to each county and its citizens,” Wooten said in an email. “I believe commissioners will not be as interested in allocating funds for a community college if the local identity is lost. Certainly, there are some efficiencies to be gained by eliminating duplicative administrative positions; however, the local county will be impacted by losing jobs.”

Johnson, president of HCC, believes merging colleges — say, HCC and SCC, though the report doesn’t specify particular mergers, only in broad terms merging the ones that are “too” small — would be bitter pills for the communities being pinpointed to swallow. Each community pushed for a community college, usually provided the land needed for the colleges, handed over many dollars over the years, and have taken enormous satisfaction in the colleges that were built.

“I believe it would remove the pride of having a higher-education institution, that was created by the community and sustained by the community for all these years,” Johnson said. “I believe the greatest danger is of losing that community involvement.”

Thom Brooks, SCC’s vice president for instruction and student services, also believes consolidating college administrations would have serious local consequences.

“Our success as a community college is directly attributable to responsive local leadership that ensures that we meet the unique needs of our students and communities in a timely and effective manner,” Brooks said in an email. “I am unaware of many models where education is enhanced through added bureaucracy and long-distance decision making.”

N.C. Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, said he’ll oppose any move to merge community colleges, terming the report “pennywise and pound foolish.”

“It is a bad idea,” Rapp said, “and it would undercut local autonomy.”

That said, Rapp also emphasized the report points out some areas for increased efficiencies in the state community college system, particularly through combined purchasing power.

President Ralls said there has been movement in that direction, and noted that in recent months the community college system has sought private-sector advice on saving money through collaborative purchasing.

Ralls said while he did not want to dismiss the importance of potentially saving $5 million a year, the truth is the potential savings through mergers represent just .04 percent of an overall education budget of $11.9 billion.

He wrote in summation to the Program Evaluation Division’s recommendation that compiled the recommendations, “I would hope that there may be several places state leaders would want to look first before tackling the costs, both tangible and intangible, that would come through such a drastic change to our state, our citizens’ access to education, our communities and our colleges.”

The basic issue is safety. That’s it, plain and simple.

While one Jackson County commissioner has questioned the need for R-5000, a new access road for Southwestern Community College’s Jackson Campus, the board of trustees and I contend that not only is there a driving need, it accelerates daily.

From a single building in 1964, the Jackson Campus has expanded to six buildings, plus the new Early College facility built last summer. The same road that served a few dozen students back in 1964 now serves a soaring enrollment of 3,668 college students, plus faculty and staff. Add to that the 155 high-schoolers at the Early College.

With only one way in and out for the entire campus, a new road is needed not just to alleviate congestion, but to mainly ensure safety. During an emergency or the need for quick evacuation, a single road is a handicap.

Back in 1994, 30 years after the campus opened, the need for a new road was included in the SCC Master Plan. Developed by Moore and Associates of Asheville, the plan suggested the college consider other points of access to campus since there is only one way in and out. A possible area, they suggested, was from N.C. 107, with the proper right-of-way into the back property at its most southeast point.

That’s 17 years ago. Our board realized then, even before 9/11 or incidences like Virginia Tech, that we needed to protect the safety of our students.

In the 1990s the college began looking at alternatives. On July 28, 1998, then-President Cecil Groves presented aerial photos of the SCC campus to the board and discussed the development of a potential direct access road to N.C. 107. Since the college is built on a hillside, college officials decided the best alternative would be a loop road around campus with direct access to NC 107. In addition to providing safety for  campus, it would help eliminate congestion at the N.C. 107 and N.C. 116 intersection.

On Feb. 12, 1999, the SCC Board of Trustees approved a plan of property acquisition, as outlined within the revised college master plan. Maps and aerial shots of a proposed route at the back of campus linking to N.C. 107 were included in that 1999 revised master plan. On Oct, 15, 1999, the State Board of Community Colleges approved SCC’s property acquisition plan, including the N.C. 107 access plan for a second means of access to the campus.

Following the state board approval, in 2000 we contacted various agencies outlining the college’s property acquisition plans and the N.C. 107 access road. Among these were David Gourley, real property agent, State Property Office; Wayne McDevitt, secretary, N.C. Department of Environmental and Natural Resources; Ron Watson, division engineer, N.C. Department of Transportation; and Jay Denton, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners.

It has taken the college 10 years to acquire the three parcels of property necessary to build the road. During those 10 years the agencies involved were kept informed of our plans and progress. Also during those 10 years the college secured legislative action and funding to relocate the N.C. Division of Forestry offices. A planning grant was received in fiscal year 2007-08, with a construction allocation awarded fiscal year 2008-09.

I have been involved with this project since day one and I can tell you it’s been a slow, methodical process, certainly not fast-tracked at all.

Dr. Groves, now president emeritus, said it well in this brief statement, “What we had was an overwhelming need, but with 10 years of tireless planning we developed a workable solution, along with the funding to fix the problem.”

Just down the road Smoky Mountain High School, situated on a hillside with a single road in and out, faced a similar situation. DOT funds were secured to build a second road for the high school. The high school students on our campus, as well as our college students, deserve the same safety factor. We have tried not to burden our commissioners and local taxpayers, and that’s why we worked diligently to secure DOT funding for SCC’s new road.

(George Stanley is the SCC Project Manager for this project.)

William Shelton is off the local community college’s board of trustees after the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, in a 3-2 vote, instead appointed Dewayne Elders, Commissioner Charles Elders’ son.

Shelton, a Democrat, was a former Jackson County commissioner who lost his bid last November for re-election — to Elders, a Republican.

Shelton had served as a board of trustee member for Southwestern Community College since 2007.

“It was a pleasure to serve as a trustee, and now it is time for someone else to step in,” Shelton said the morning after the vote, adding he wished the SCC board the “best of luck.”

Elders, before voting, asked stand-in county Attorney David Moore (the usual attorney, Jay Coward wasn’t there) for a legal opinion.

“I don’t think this is a conflict, because I’m not going back to school, but I want to make sure before I vote,” Elders said.

Moore responded that he was not particularly prepared to answer such a question, but that in his best off-the-cuff response it was really up to Elders and the board to make that decision.

Without Elders, the board would have had a split vote, 2-2.

Asked by Chairman Jack Debnam if he wanted to abstain, Elders responded that no, he did not. And he didn’t, instead choosing to vote with Debnam (who nominated Dewayne Elders) and fellow Republican Doug Cody. Debnam is an Independent, but his votes are in line with the Republicans.

Amanda Martin, an attorney for the N.C. Press Association, said the law prohibits elected officials from gaining a direct personnel benefit, meaning Elders didn’t violate the state statute.

Democrat Joe Cowan spoke in favor of Shelton, alluding to the former commissioner’s leadership qualities and service. He and Democrat Mark Jones voted against Dewayne Elders.

“I’ve had a number of requests from constituents of mine that the board reappoint (Shelton),” Cowan said.

Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, called on Sylva leaders to join him in his bid for increased scrutiny of local N.C. Department of Transportation projects.

“I’m not here as a representative of the county commission,” Debnam said. “This is something I feel as a citizen needs to be addressed.”

The county commission chairman has already spoken against the DOT projects to the towns of Dillsboro and the Village of Forest Hills, as well as stumping at one of his own county commissioner meetings. He’s scheduled to visit Webster, too, to discuss his self-described “pet project.”

At issue in particular are two roads, both of which are destined to benefit Southwestern Community College campuses, that are being built to the tune of about $30 million.

Conrad Burrell, chairman of the SCC Board of Trustees, is also the DOT board member for the state’s 10 westernmost counties. Burrell has defended his role in the roads, and defended why he believes they are needed. He’s cited safety concerns among other reasons.

Burrell has noted, correctly, that he has not violated state ethics rules in regard to these projects, and he emphasized that he does not stand to benefit personally.

Debnam remains unconvinced about the need for the two roads, however, noting that “safety” didn’t become a stated goal until well into DOT’s planning process.

“Out of 39 projects, these two got moved up to be the most important projects we have in Division 14,” Debnam told the Sylva Board of Commissioners last week. One provides a new entrance to SCC in Sylva off N.C. 107. The other makes upgrades, including wider, straighter lanes and better shoulders, on Siler Road leading to SCC’s campus in Macon County.

The new SCC entrance road in Jackson County has grown in scope from a regular road “to a boulevard-type road” for an estimated cost of $12.3 million.

It would involve a bridge over N.C. 107, he said, and a round about on Evans Road. This, he said, for an estimated 400 cars a day, when nearby N.C. 107 carries 30,000 cars per day. And N.C. 107, county leaders have been told, can’t be fixed anytime soon — at least seven years, Debnam said, while the SCC entrance road will have taken just four years to bring to fruition if construction starts next year as planned.

“If we let this happen to us, we deserve it,” he said.

Town Commissioner Harold Hensley commented that the design for SCC’s entrance road was conceivably a “grander entry” than even the one built to serve Western Carolina University.

“It depends on whose wish list you’re on,” Debnam responded.

Hensley said he believes DOT’s ostensible desires to include local voices in the planning process is simply an empty gesture “to make you feel involved.”

“I think it is time we figure out what’s going on,” Debnam said. “About why some things can happen, and some can’t.”

Julia Merchant, spokesperson for DOT, this week declined to comment on behalf of the agency.

The tiny town of Webster has suddenly emerged as a player in whether a controversial $12 million entrance road is built into neighboring Southwestern Community College.

That’s because the state Department of Transportation wants the town to sign off on a municipal agreement for the new route from N.C. 107 to N.C. 116. In other words, the town is still large enough to encompass some of the road’s boundaries, and that means big DOT seems to need little Webster’s OK.

But if a meeting of the town board last week is any indication of which way the wind might be blowing, it looks like this town of fewer than 500 souls could put the kibosh on SCC’s road, a pet project of SCC Board of Trustees President Conrad Burrell. He is also this region’s board of transportation member. The board, until Gov. Beverly Perdue somewhat changed the process recently, has had virtually total say-so on what roads get built when, and where, in North Carolina.

Burrell voted three times to give the SCC road project money, with $680,000 since 2007 already tagged for the new SCC entrance. Despite also sitting on the community college board, his voting does not violate the state ethics law. Burrell has emphasized that he does not view his advocacy for the road as improper since he does not stand to gain personally. A new building going up on campus has been named in honor of Burrell, partly in acknowledgement of his strenuous efforts to see the road built.

The college currently has only one road in and out, and if something happened to block that road, students could be stranded on the hillside campus, Burrell has said.

But others aren’t so sure this is a good use of such a large chunk of taxpayer dollars.

“I personally have some concerns about this,” said Webster Mayor Larry Phillips. “Not so much about the road itself, but the cost of the project.”

That concern, Phillips indicated, is directly attributable to Jackson County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jack Debnam, who has embarked on a one-man crusade against the DOT project.

Debnam has publicly questioned whether a new entrance road for SCC is that important when compared to other state road needs. Debnam met with DOT officials, reporting to The Smoky Mountain News, “I told them this whole thing stinks so bad I can’t hardly stand to stay in the room. I told them I was going to do everything in my power to stop them.”

Debnam is scheduled to meet with each of Jackson County’s three town boards to layout those concerns, including Webster. Debnam also used his position as commission chairman to stump against the project during a county meeting. Commissioner Joe Cowan countered Debnam’s criticism of the road. Cowan last week repeated his call that it would be only fair invite the DOT to a meeting to give its side on the project.

Cowan, like Burrell, is a Democrat, while Debnam is a conservative-leaning Independent.

County Manager Chuck Wooten said a date in July or August for such a discussion has been tentatively set, per Cowan’s request.

A planned new access road that will provide an exit and entrance into Southwestern Community College in Webster should not be a controversial project. The college’s growth, the entire country’s renewed emphasis on public safety in the post-9/11 era, and SCC’s unusual layout running up the side of a hill all point to the need for the project.

But this project has become a hotly debated topic among many in Jackson County now that the chairman of the board of commissioners is criticizing the preference given to the road despite what he says are other important needs in the county.

“There are some projects in our county that have been put off for years for the funding to be acquired for this road right here,” Debnam said at a board meeting last week. And, even more pointed, “I told (Department of Transportation officials) this whole thing stinks so bad I can’t hardly stand to stay in the room. I told them I was going to do everything in my power to stop them.”

What’s important here is that those critical of the road be sure to separate what are two different issues: SCC’s need for the road versus how this road was OK’d over other projects.

About 11,000 vehicles a day travel past SCC on N.C. 116, right past the school’s entrance. The college has seen tremendous growth in the past decade, jumping from 2,372 full-time students in 2000 to 3,668 full-timers in 2010. That’s a 54-percent growth in enrollment over the past decade, and yet traffic in and out of the school must use the same roads.

The safety issue is one that has gained priority over the last decade. As we pointed out in an article in last week’s newspaper, both Tuscola and Smoky Mountain high schools have had second entrance/exit roads built in recent years to make sure there was more than one way in and out of the campuses. County Commissioner Joe Cowan, in response to Debnam’s criticism, was adamant that public safety is a very important aspect of this project.

Finally, in this economy it pays to feed your biggest existing industry. In Jackson County, that industry is education. Between the two colleges, there is no larger employer in the county and no other entities that attract more people. It’s good for Jackson County when the state invests money in Western Carolina University and SCC.

But it’s easy to understand why the issues raised by Debnam are getting traction.

In Jackson County, the Southern Loop controversy has led to a substantial level of mistrust about just about all Department of Transportation projects. There’s also a new, combustible mix on the Jackson County Board of Commissioners — two new GOP members and one Independent, along with two incumbent Democrats.

Conrad Burrell, who is the regional representative on the state Board of Transportation, is also a long-time member of the SCC Board of Trustees. The fact that he openly supported this road, and that some speculate it could provide a ramp that would aid the proposed Southern Loop — which Burrell also supports and many others in Jackson County don’t — has opened the door for criticism of the SCC project. Debnam thinks Burrell’s support of SCC has pushed this project ahead of others.

Some also think that DOT officials and Burrell are laying the groundwork for the Southern Loop, and that this road getting pushed ahead of others is part of that plan. Let’s hope not. Grouping these two projects could put SCC in the crosshairs of a controversy it in which it doesn’t need to be involved.

Road building decisions are as byzantine as any process in government. It’s never a bad idea to closely examine decisions by state bureaucrats about expenditures, especially when it comes to roads. The DOT has proven itself over the years to be an insular agency that too often makes decisions contrary to the wishes of the taxpayers who are paying its bills. Because of that, the public — and leaders like Debnam — has every right to scrutinize the projects that will affect their communities. Sure, the influence of someone as powerful as Burrell will definitely play a part in which roads are built — that’s his job as a DOT board member.

In this case, though, SCC shouldn’t be punished because of suspicions about the motives of those who support this project. The road is been discussed for more than a decade. Let’s get it done. The other issues will still be there to investigate for as long as anyone wants.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

 Southwestern Community College this week got a new president, Donald Tomas of Aledo, Texas, who takes over July 1.

Tomas replaces Richard Collings, who served in the top slot at SCC for just six months before resigning suddenly. Collings, who replaced SCC President Cecil Groves after his retirement, suffered a stroke after coming to North Carolina to start his new job.

Tomas is the college’s sixth president. The State Board of Community Colleges approved the board of trustees’ pick May 20. SCC’s service area is Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, plus the Cherokee Indian Reservation.

SCC Board of Trustees Chairman Conrad Burrell described Tomas as “a good fit for our college and the communities it serves. We feel he has the knowledge and skills to move our college forward to the next level and ensure we complete our mission of providing a quality, affordable education to the citizens of Western North Carolina.”

Tomas said he is excited about the opportunity.

Tomas currently serves as vice president of instruction at Weatherford College in Weatherford, Texas.

Tomas described his role at SCC as one of “servant leader,” with a focus on creating an atmosphere of innovation and success.

Tomas has holds a doctorate from Grambling State University in Louisiana, plus degrees from Texas State Woman’s University and the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Weatherford College, where he currently serves, is a comprehensive two-year community college serving a rural four-county region of more than 202,000 residents. His previous positions include chief administrative officer for the Southwest Texas Junior College-Del Rio in Del Rio, Texas, and associate dean of instructional services at Southwest Texas Junior College.

Tomas and his wife, Allison, are the parents of three adult daughters.

A new $12 million entrance road for Southwestern Community College got preference over other road projects in the region in recent years, partly thanks to support from the right friends in the right places.

Conrad Burrell, the chairman of the SCC board of trustees, advocated for the road not merely as a representative of the college, but also from inside the N.C. Department of Transportation. For more than a decade, Burrell has simultaneously served on the SCC board and as this region’s representative on the N.C. Board of Transportation, which holds sway over what roads get built.

Burrell holds one of 14 coveted seats on the state DOT board. His position allowed him to steer what road construction in a 10-county area from Haywood west.

Burrell three times voted to give the road funding during state DOT board meetings. The road has received $680,000 since 2007 for planning and design. Construction is slated to start the second half of next year.

Burrell’s support of the project did not legally constitute a conflict of interest, however. Under state law, a conflict of interest exists only when a public official or their immediate family member stands to benefit financially. In this case, Burrell is not paid to serve on the SCC board, nor does he gain financially from the new road.

At every DOT board meeting, board members sign a statement that reads: “I do not have any financial, professional or other economic interests in any of the projects being presented on the Board of Transportation meeting agenda.”

In an ethics training workshop for DOT board members in February, Burrell said he specifically asked about this issue.

“From the legal standpoint there is not a conflict and I am not benefiting from anything,” Burrell said.

Burrell said he began to wonder about it after the SCC board recently named a new building in his honor. The new entrance road will lead past the doorstep of the $8 million building bearing Burrell’s name.

Norma Houston, a public law expert with the UNC School of Government, led the ethics workshop.

“I remember him being very concerned about whether it was a conflict of interest,” Houston said, adding she was impressed that he asked.

“Did he somehow use his position of office as a DOT board member to help secure funding for the new road that would benefit the college?” Houston said. “Under the state ethic act, that is not a violation because there is no personal gain.”

The most he may have gained was his name on a building, which he may have gotten anyway. At a recent groundbreaking for the building, fellow college trustees praised Burrell for his contributions to the college, specifically citing his role in securing a new entrance road for the campus.

Houston said those in public positions still have to be concerned about the appearance of conflict, even if it doesn’t meet the legal definition.

“The question I always pose back is when the law doesn’t clearly say ‘no’ and you are left with the question ‘should you still do it?’” Houston said.

That’s when Houston recommends a little soul searching.

“Would he still have advocated for this project, would it be good for the community and good for the college, even if he didn’t serve on the board? That helps frame the individual’s thoughts on the ethics side of the discussion,” Houston said.

In this case, Burrell says he would. The college currently has only one road in and out, and if something happened to block that road, students could be stranded on the hillside campus.

“Even if I hadn’t been on the college board, I think this is absolutely a safety issue,” Burrell said.

Jack Debnam, the chairman of the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, has questioned whether a new entrance road for SCC is that important compared to other road needs. Debnam met with DOT officials last week to share his concerns and learn more about the new road.

“I told them this whole thing stinks so bad I can’t hardly stand to stay in the room,” Debnam recounted. “I told them I was going to do everything in my power to stop them.”

Burrell has served on the DOT board for 10 years. His current term expired in January. He is willing to be reappointed for another term, he said, but the governor has not yet taken action.

 

Making the grade

DOT board members used to have great leeway in deciding what roads got built in their respective geographic areas. In fact, that was the primary role of the DOT board.

“We relied on them to tell us what was important in the division,” said Van Argabright, the western manager for the transportation planning. “The priorities were in their head, so to speak.”

In 2007, the state moved toward a more formal and objective method of ranking road construction. Projects are now graded on a point system. Local leaders are asked for input, which in turn earns points for a project.

“But back then you didn’t have a way to score,” Argabright said. Thus the power lay almost entirely with the DOT board members.

The SCC interchange landed on the state’s priority list in 2007, just before the new system was implemented. So there was nothing unusual about Burrell, being the region’s DOT board member, asking for a project to be funded even if he had a personal interest in it.

Argabright said the SCC entrance road seems like a valid priority.

“It certainly seems to me trying to help a community college is a pretty good thing,” Argabright said.

The new SCC entrance road isn’t the only project DOT has pursued in recent years that benefits the community college. A new road that leads past SCC’s Macon County campus is currently under construction. The existing road to reach the SCC campus in Macon is a narrow, dead-end, two-lane road. It will be widened and straightened, providing a better caliber road, and extended to tie into U.S. 441 so it is no longer a dead-end, a project carrying a price tag of least $13 million.

Both were on a short list of priority road projects that local DOT leaders tried to protect from state budget cuts.

Joel Setzer, the head of a 10-county DOT division based in Sylva, advocated to keep the SCC road projects on track despite others being delayed in the face of state budget cuts.

In April 2009, after reviewing a revised timetable for road construction, Setzer wrote in an email to a state engineer: “There are 39 projects with the schedules being delayed …. Of the 39, we see seven projects that the original schedule should be maintained.”

The new entrance to SCC’s Jackson campus and the improved road to SCC’s Macon campus were among the seven.

In another email a few days later, Setzer asked road engineers if they could get the roads designed in time should the money materialize as hoped.

“These two projects are being evaluated for schedule due to funding shortages. These are high priorities for Division 14. Division 14 is evaluating options for keeping these projects on schedule and delaying others. I need to know if the funding is made available, can you deliver these projects,” Setzer wrote. “Please let me know as soon as you can. I do not want to trade another project’s schedule for these and then not let them on time.”

Setzer said that the roads were not given preferential treatment per se. Given the funding constraint, the DOT was forced to choose which projects to keep on track and which to delay— but that doesn’t mean the SCC roads moved ahead of others in line.

“There is a difference between accelerating schedules versus maintaining schedules,” Setzer said.

Debnam questioned whether the roads were the best use of limited road building money.

“That’s $30 million of our division’s money that has gone into two glorified driveways,” Debnam said in an interview.

Debnam shared his disdain for what he claimed was preferential treatment for the SCC roads during a county commissioner meeting Monday. He even came prepared with a blown up map of the project.

Before Debnam could get started, Commissioner Joe Cowan stepped in.

“This report is not on the agenda,” Cowan protested. “If we are going to have this we need to have someone from DOT to tell the other side of the story and I object.”

“Well, they can come next time,” Debnam said.

Debnam told the audience at the commissioners meeting that they should all wonder about “the real purpose of this road.”

“There are some projects in our county that have been put off for years for the funding to be acquired for this road right here,” Debnam said.

“I don’t think anybody can become an authority on DOT projects after becoming a commissioner for only five months,” Cowan said after Debnam’s presentation.

Ryan Sherby, a liaison to the DOT for the six-county Rural Planning Organization, said the process for road building is complicated. There may well be “more pressing transportation needs” than the new SCC entrance, he said. But some projects are more complicated to design, cost a lot more money or have right-of-way hang-ups.

“This one may not be the best project in Jackson County that could have been pursued, but this is a doable project,” Sherby said.

The motivation behind a $12 million entrance road to Southwestern Community College has been called into question by a Jackson County commissioner.

Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County commissioners, claims the road catapulted past others to the top of the list.

“We all had other projects pushed back to get this in,” Debnam said.

The road first appeared on the N.C. Department of Transportation’s list of proposed projects in March 2007. A month later, it was allocated $400,000 to begin planning. Construction is scheduled to begin in the second half of next year.

SEE ALSO: DOT leader advocates for SCC road while serving on college board

SEE ALSO (PDF download): DOT proposal 

That’s not exactly fast-tracked, according to Joel Setzer, head of the Department of Transportation’s Division 14, a 10-county area with its main office in Sylva.

“It has taken a normal pace for a project of the magnitude that it is,” Setzer said. Granted some projects take longer, much longer, but this one was very straightforward in its design, has no environmental issues and little right-of-way to acquire.

The purpose of the new entrance road is to serve SCC’s expanding campus and for safety, according to the DOT. The college buildings are built into a hillside. The entire campus only has one entrance now, and if blocked, students could be trapped during an emergency.

Commissioner Joe Cowan emphasized this point as a counterpoint to Debnam’s questions over the project.

“If we had a real emergency there and that one way got blocked, there is no way to get there with an ambulance or fire truck,” Cowan said.

Both Tuscola High School in Waynesville and Smoky Mountain High School in Sylva were in similar straits. Each had a single road in and out and are also situated on a hillside. Both have had second entrance roads built with DOT funds in recent years.

 

Bridge over 107

The new entrance road calls for an overpass above N.C. 107 with on- and off-ramps. The interchange could serve a dual purpose in the future for the Southern Loop, a proposed bypass around the clogged commercial artery of N.C. 107, according to Conrad Burrell, a member of the state DOT board who lives in Sylva. The bypass would need an interchange where it connects with N.C. 107 anyway, likely in the same vicinity, so this one could play that role some day.

“That would be the logical place to put it,” Burrell said, adding they have suggested as much to road planners in Raleigh.

Lydia Aydlett suspects the interchange for the SCC road was designed with the Southern Loop in mind. The same people in the DOT who planned the SCC road are planning for the Southern Loop — namely Burrell and Setzer — so it is only logical they would devise a way for the projects to converge, said Aydlett, a member of Smart Roads Alliance that opposes the Southern Loop.

However, that was in no way the driving force behind the interchange design for the SCC entrance road, according to Setzer.

“That really was not the objective of the interchange. We were not trying to speculate where the 107 connector, if it is ever built, would come in,” Setzer said.

Debnam accused the SCC entrance road of ballooning from a simple intersection as first proposed to a much larger and costlier interchange sporting an overpass with ramps. The interchange design was chosen in lieu of a standard intersection because it is cheaper and safer, according to Steve Williams, a road engineer with the DOT office in Sylva.

Since SCC sits on a hillside, the entrance road must climb up from N.C. 107 to reach campus, Williams said. An elevated interchange means less excavation into the hillside when making that climb.

“The cost was cheaper to do a bridge because of the size of the cut,” Williams said.

It is also safer. If traffic backed up at a stoplight, drivers woudn’t know it until cresting the hill.

“You would abruptly be on stopped traffic,” Setzer said. “We were worried that would be a safety issue.”

The overpass design came as a shock last year to Jeanette Evans, a member of the Jackson County Transportation Task Force that was tasked two years ago with crafting a long-range road plan for the county.

Since the SCC road was already in the pipeline, it was never specifically discussed by the task force. But it appeared on all the DOT maps they used.

“It looked really innocuous,” said Evans.

Evans wasn’t the only one surprised.

“Maybe if the overpass (design) was talked about, it may have raised some opposition on the task force,” said Ryan Sherby, a liaison between local leaders and the six-county Rural Planning Organization.

However, the interchange design was adopted early in the design process. At a public meeting on the project in 2008, the DOT presented three concepts for the new entrance road and solicited public feedback. Two of those three options called for an interchange. At a second public meeting in 2010, the DOT again showed maps and handed out brochures showing interchange-style design options.

According to an attendance roster, at least two members of Smart Roads attended the first public meeting in 2008 where the interchange design was shared.

 

Help to congestion?

As a side benefit, the new entrance will relieve congestion at the intersection of N.C. 107 and N.C. 116 by giving students an alternative way onto campus, according to the DOT.

“I think it will take a quite a bit of traffic off that intersection. That was part of it,” Burrell said.

As of 2009, 11,000 vehicles a day traveled past the college on N.C. 116. Clearly not all of them were coming and going to the college — around 2,500 students take classes at the Sylva campus, but not all students come to campus every day.

How many vehicles would use the new entrance road, and whether it would take much pressure off the existing intersection, is doubtful, Debnam said.

“It is not going to pull that many people out of that intersection,” Debnam said.

Those coming to SCC from the Sylva area won’t be able to use the new entrance road. It would be used only by those coming from the Cullowhee area. Those leaving campus can use the interchange to head in either direction

A new building started taking shape last month at Southwestern Community College’s campus in Sylva, with completion slated for next March.

When finished, the nearly $8-million project will be called the Conrad G. Burrell building after longtime board of trustee member Conrad Burrell, who once took carpentry, electrical and other classes at what was then a technical college. The building will provide the school new bookstore space, plus additional academic and administrative space.

This represents the first state-funded construction to take place at SCC’s main campus since 1986, Project Manager George Stanley said. More recently, Jackson County paid to build an early-college building for high-school students there. The county transferred ownership of that building to the community college.

Jackson County also pitched in about $2.7 million to help fund the new building.

This new 38,210-square-foot Burrell building is being paid for with remnants of the 2000 education bond referendum. Stanley said the school asked to delay using the bond money to work out a swap for the land-strapped institution from the N.C. Forest Service, which neighbored SCC’s campus. Burrell was instrumental in making that deal happen — the Forest Service identified nine acres to relocate to elsewhere in Jackson, in the Greens Creek area, and SCC purchased the land for them.

“That was a good trade,” Burrell said. “Southwestern needed that property bad.”

The building is environmentally friendly, though it won’t carry the coveted LEED certification tag because of ongoing costs associated with that program.

“We have a pedigree building without the registration,” Stanley said.

That includes geothermal heating and cooling with 48 wells used to meet the 105-ton cooling load of the building.

Thanks to the economic doldrums, construction came in $1.5-million less than budgeted. This will allow SCC, pending state approval, to use its surplus to buy an abandoned Tuckaseigee Water and Sewer Association water tank on campus. This is needed to provide adequate pressure to power a fire sprinkler system for all of the buildings on SCC’s campus, and to reach the third floor of the new building, Stanley said.

Burrell said he was honored when the SCC board of trustee’s named the building after him.

“I had no idea the board was going to do this,” Burrell said. “We were in a meeting, they asked me to leave — I thought they were going to fire me or something. I wasn’t expecting it.”

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