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House panel Ok’s merger of Forrest City technical school into local community college

A heated debate that has been stewing in Northeast Arkansas for months spilled over into a House panel on Tuesday (Feb. 28) after lawmakers backed a plan to merge Crowley’s Ridge Technical Institute of Forrest City into its next door neighbor, East Arkansas Community College (EACC).

Debate on House Bill 1543 began as a special order of business in the House Education Committee but was prolonged until the House adjourned after nearly 90 minutes of discussion. Education Committee Chair Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, extended the meeting to the afternoon to allow some of the more than 100 opponents of the bill who traveled to the State Capitol to testify before the panel.

More than a year ago, Gov. Asa Hutchinson put the weight of his office behind the controversial plan to merge Crowley’s Ridge with EACC. In introducing the bill as part of the governor’s efforts to streamline government, Rep. Steve Hollowell, R-Forrest City, told the committee that merging the schools would bring greater efficiencies in administration and savings of more than $1 million.

“Basically, (HB1543) is the process to merge these two colleges,” Hollowell said. “The governor is on board with this bill … and it is not a forced merged – both boards would have to approve the merger.”

Sen. Ronald Caldwell, R-Wynne, the Senate sponsor who sat at the table with Hollowell to speak in support HB1543, also offered a defense of the legislation, saying both schools would see greater benefits by working together. Caldwell raised the ire of many in the crowd when he explained that the merger of the two schools should have already taken place since the two campuses are connected to each other and serve the same constituents.

“This is enabling legislation; it does not force a merger. What this bill does is merge administrations,” Caldwell said. “There is not even a street between the (two schools) – there is a hedge.”

Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, also told the committee that Crowley Ridge officials had promised state lawmakers more than a year ago they would seek to work out a compromise so state officials would not have to step in. But, he said, Crowley Ridge officials walked away from negotiating table several months ago after only one meeting.

“They are not opposed to a merger, they are just opposed to working with EACC,” he said.

But many of the vocal Crowley’s Ridge students, teachers and administrators who had traveled to Little Rock for the House committee hearing offered a different view of HB1543. During both the morning meeting and afternoon meeting, the group often clapped in support of those who spoke against the bill and audibly disagreed with testimony from Caldwell, Hollowell and other supporters of the legislation.

Roger Lawson, an Iraqi veteran and Crowley Ridge student who is studying to be a welder, gave emotional testimony on how the Northeast Arkansas school had literally saved his life after years of being homeless and jobless following his active duty service in the Gulf War.

Tom Darnell, a former director of the technical program at Forrest City High School, told the committee that both schools were important to the Northeast Arkansas Community – but separate entities with different goals. He also said that Crowley’s Ridge would lose its identity as the top technical school in Arkansas after it merger into EACC.

“HB1543 represents a hostile takeover,” Darnell said. “This is not a merger that combines the best of both institutions.”

Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, also offered a spirited case for halting the merger of the two schools. The Little Rock lawmaker famously known for helping to implement the historic Little Rock School District’s desegregation decision engaged in several rancorous discussions with the sponsors and other supporters of the bill. Walker told the committee that merging the schools would not be seamless because they serve different missions.

“A vo-tech is very different than a two-year college,” Walker protested. “How do you merge the two without doing an injustice to one or the other?”

Some of the debate also centered around the near certainty the schools will eventually be forced to merge after Gov. Hutchison appoints a new director to the Crowley Ridge’s board. In an earlier vote last year to merge the schools, one member voted for the measure, three against and two board directors sat out. A Hutchinson appointee would likely give the board the majority it needs to pass such a measure, several officials testified.

Under HB1543, the enabling legislation would only merge the two schools after a vote by the Crowley Ridge and EACC to approve such a decision. Rep. John Michael Gray, D-Augusta, asked the sponsors to hold off moving the bill out of committee to allow for an easier transition once the governor names a new Crowley Ridge board member.

“I ask you to somewhat split the baby. Allow the (boards) to make a decision first … if in fact this is inevitable,” said Gray.

After the morning session ended, the committee came back together three hours later after the House convened and gave the bill a “do pass” recommendation. It now goes to the full house, where the Crowley Ridge supporters say they will continue their fight.

According to Shelly Laird, a financial aid analyst at the Forrest City technical school, more than 100 Crowley Ridge supporters traveled to Little Rock to fight against the merger with EACC. Laird said supporters of the Forrest City technical school will also travel back to the State Capitol when HB1543 goes before the full House, and if it makes it to the Senate.

“We will continue to fight this. We will be back,” she said.

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