School wars 

Two community colleges are locked in a battle for turf that some say could have grave repercussions for other adult educational institutions statewide.

Wayne County Community College is suing Henry Ford Community College over HFCC’s plan to build a technical training center at Ford Motor Co.’s Woodhaven Stamping Plant, which is in WCCC’s tax district. Ford Motor Co. and the United Auto Workers are partners in the proposed tech center, which is to be built on the auto company’s property with the help of a $5 million state grant.

State Rep. Keith Stallworth, D-Detroit, says if Henry Ford is allowed to follow through with its plan, it could lead to the blurring of community college boundaries throughout Michigan. Ken Harris, WCCC’s dean of planning and research, shares Stallworth’s concern.

"There’s no precedent for this anywhere in the country," Harris says. "There would be border wars. ... It would create a disaster to the community college system."

Along with Oakland and Macomb community colleges, Henry Ford is among several community colleges across Michigan to win funding to build technical training centers as part of Gov. John Engler’s $60 million worker training program that began in 1998.

WCCC officials argue in their lawsuit that Henry Ford’s center would be illegal because officials haven’t obtained state Board of Education approval, a requirement under the state Community College Act of 1966.

But Gov. John Engler, through an executive order, recently transferred responsibility for defining community college boundaries from the elected state Board of Education to his administration’s Career Development Department. The change, which goes into effect in January 2000, could make it harder for WCCC to stop Henry Ford from setting up in its district, which could theoretically be redefined any way the Engler administration wants, says state Board of Education Vice President Kathleen Straus.

Straus and other Engler critics see what’s going on with WCCC as emblematic of a larger plan. "I think the real issue is getting power over education and turning it into private, for-profit," Detroit City Councilmember Maryann Mahaffey says.

Engler spokeswoman Susan Shafer says the executive order, which also transferred administration of the Michigan Educational Assessment Program test to the state’s Treasury Department, wasn’t a power grab on Engler’s part but an effort to better serve the public by putting community college programs with similar programs under the Department of Career Development.

Stallworth, Mahaffey and others fear a blurring of community college boundaries will weaken public support for community colleges and open the door for more corporate control over adult education.

"What happens with the blurring of the boundaries is loss of tax base, which I think is Wayne’s major concern," says Marianne Yared McGuire, another state Board of Education member.

For their part, Henry Ford officials say state law doesn’t prohibit their building a training center outside their tax district. Even if it did, they say, the law doesn’t apply to HFCC because it is part of the Dearborn school district and comes under different regulations.

"The real issue is they don’t want us down there," Henry Ford spokesman Randall Miller says, adding that worker training is needed. "We have the programs and the technical expertise to offer that training."

Harris says WCCC’s Downriver campus is capable of providing any of the courses Henry Ford plans to offer, but doesn’t have the state backing.

"They’re receiving state funding, which creates an unfair advantage because they’re going to be taking our students in that area," Harris says. "Competition across borders is fine because it promotes excellence in education without duplicating programs and wasting public funds. If they build a campus next to our school and duplicate our course offerings, that is a waste of public funds."

In Harris’ view, Ford Motor Co.’s offer to partner with Henry Ford Community College enabled the Dearborn school to attract state funding. The state did not fund two training center proposals in which WCCC was a partner. Most of WCCC’s students are African-Americans.

"We would like to see them work together," says the Rev. Jim Holley, pastor of the Historic Little Rock Baptist Church in Detroit, referring to the two colleges. "Here we are in the year 2000 and we’re still fighting this racial war."

Stallworth, who says he is attempting to mediate the dispute between the colleges, says, "Rather than throw $5 million into a new facility, why not give it to the existing facility? The premise would be that there is some concern over granting an advanced technology grant to an African-American institution."

Jim Tobin, spokesman for Michigan Economic Development Corp., which distributes the grants, says Wayne County Community College was only a minor partner in tech center proposals that came before the state. He called Stallworth’s comment about racism "outrageous." Harris says the college isn’t taking a position on whether racism could be involved in the issue.

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