Chronicling Erie County's Community College
How did we get here?
While uncertainty abounds when it comes to the future of education on the whole as the nation continues to grapple with the evolving and fluid nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, we know this much is true: Erie County's bid for a public community college has been approved.
On Wednesday, July 8, the Pennsylvania Board of Education voted 10 to 5 in favor of the proposed plan. That vote followed a preliminary vote that fell 9 to 6 on June 11 after a two-day-long virtual hearing.
But why a community college? Why are we here — again — discussing the need, the merits, and potential, now?
"Not every city can have a research university," writes James Fallows in the 2018 bestselling Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey in the Heart of America, which he co-authored with his wife Deborah. "Any ambitious one can have a community college."
"And while research universities are the most important part of the U.S. educational system from a global perspective," he continues, "I've come to think that community colleges matter most domestically right now."
Noting the critical role of its public library system, the welcoming of New Americans, unique impact investing through casino revenue, locally provided high-speed Internet, its anchor Fortune 500 insurance company, and more, the Fallows collectively — long-time correspondents for The Atlantic — found plenty to report on Erie during their time here in 2016 (a year I'd like to ask you to keep in mind).
But not a community college. Then, four years ago, the prospect of a community college was mostly just talk and most of the talk echoed from conversations past.
The answer to the question, Why would towns and cities and regions need and/or want a community college? isn't singular. Echoing Fallows' observation, not all places have a research university. And not all people have the means — or desire, or ability — to travel to and attend one for studies, whether that's full-time or part-time, as a traditional or non-traditional student.
Others might point to the role community colleges play in creating pathways from minimum-wage work to family-sustaining employment in, say, the high-tech sector or advanced manufacturing. One more would be services they provide when it comes to taking General Education Development tests or earning trade certificates.
The answer to the question Why would Erie need/want a community college?, likewise, isn't limited. For many of the reasons "Anywhere, USA" would want one or see the need, so does Erie. What's more, the northwestern region of Pennsylvania represents the largest geographical swath of the Keystone State unrepresented by a community college tied to the commonwealth's public system.
Another response would be: Erie County residents have already been funding community colleges.
Each year, state dollars flow into and out of the general fund, by way of taxpayer dollars on their way in and financial support to the 14 existing community colleges on their way out. In October 2019, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf indicated to the Board of Education that the commonwealth could fund an additional community college, according to a statement by Elizabeth Bolden, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges.
But how did we get here? And where exactly is here?
Let's go (as is often said) back to the beginning, or rather, a beginning — that of the Erie Reader and its community college coverage. That comes with the caveat that much will be left uncovered here — from Erie County's community college experiment long, long ago to some of the conversations spanning the years leading up to 2011. Those are stories for other days. And so, here, we begin as we began.
Less than four months into its existence, as the infant Erie Reader swaddled along, Cory Vaillancourt, self-described brilliant writer/complete hack (his words, not mine) was doing something he proclaimed he was sometimes known to do: Listening to the voices on the radio and doing what they told him to do.
Back in July 2011, it was the voice of Don Henley, who, in Vaillancourt's words, was "imploring me not to get caught up in the same old situation others before me have — this story was covered in detail when it was topical, and new ground was not to be broken here, not today, not by me."
Interesting literary analysis of "Hotel California" overlaid to a decades-long, ongoing story for Erie aside, Vaillancourt was there to interview the late former County Executive Barry Grossman. We at the Reader had asked Vaillancourt to dig into the community college conversation, because even at our young age, we recognized the weight of that particular issue to the community we were working to serve. If perhaps one more outlet in Erie discussed the story, something new might be found, something might just change.
Vaillancourt was right: The story had been covered in detail. The news at the time of General Electric Transportation in Erie publicly endorsing a community college and pledging funding towards it, school board votes on that matter affirming, recanting, shelving, and halting progress on the matter, and more had grabbed more than their fair share of headlines. The ambition to construct a community college had been heralded before in community plans, like 2001's "Toward an Economic Development Strategy for Erie," often referred to in Erie by the last name of its chief author, the Bosworth Report. Similarly, it was assigned, drafted, read, considered, and shelved.
More than anything else in the interview (which is still available at ErieReader.com), Grossman's final remarks to Vaillancourt perhaps echoed our own befuddlement the best — even by the time we were in a rhyme of printing and had begun to gain trust with our readers, ongoing conversations had precipitated little action:
CV: I'm not much of a journalist. My editor keeps telling me I need a local hook, a twist at the end of my story, or some sort of personal anecdote. Can you help me out here?
BG: E.J. Dionne, Jr., who writes for the Washington Post, and is syndicated in the Erie Times, was here and spoke to the Jefferson Society, and a bunch of us hosted him for dinner, and I was sitting next to him. It was right after I was inaugurated. He looked at me during dinner, and said "Well, Grossman, what was the big issue in your campaign?" and I said, "The community college." And he said, "Really! What's wrong with your community college?" And I said, "We don't have one." I'll never forget this as long as I live — he dropped his fork, some food dribbled out of his mouth, he stared at me incredulously and said, "What? You don't have a community college? There's three in the county I live in." That's the message we have to get across — that we are dinosaurs in this, and we are really paying the price for this.
Stuck in the Jurassic Age, Erie lumbered on, and in October of that year, Vaillancourt, this time with fellow former Reader contributor Mark Toriski, penned a feature on the impending future of GE. Briefly mentioning the community college issue, the two wrote: "Erie won't even give GE the badly-needed community college they've been asking about," a sober reminder of the tenuous, troubled relationship the community had then with its then-largest employer, who relocated its headquarters from Erie to Chicago, shed hundreds of jobs in just a few years, and sold out to Wabtec corporation.
Fast-forward a couple of years and the Reader brushed it off as "dead in the water." A notable change had transpired within Erie's political arena, as former Congresswoman Kathy Dahlkemper defeated the incumbent Grossman in 2013's Democratic primaries. Riding out the remaining months of his first-and-only term as county executive, Grossman continued to be vocal about his support for a community college.
In advance of the 2013 general election, in which Dahlkemper would go on to defeat Republican challenger Don Tucci, Reader contributor Rebecca Styn asked Dahlkemper: "[Grossman] has publicly stated he may be willing to endorse a candidate if either steps forward favoring the establishment of a community college, and to retain some of his staff. Thoughts on this?"
Dahlkemper responded: "I have not ever publicly tried to receive endorsements from public officials — rather focusing on the everyday voter. I don't believe those endorsements are vital. I would rather just hear the message of the constituents."
Those would be the now-in-her-second-term County Executive's first words to the Reader on the issue, before later going on to be one of the issues' most ardent voices of support.
Following that 2012 election, the Reader issued an op-ed that addressed the community college head-on and formally endorsed the idea.
"This election — if the political tea leaves tell us anything — revealed two key things that first began in May: Erie was ready for change, and Erie wants to continue embracing change," we wrote, acknowledging Erie County voters' decision to elect a new county executive and two new County Council members (Jay Breneman and Andre Horton, both of whom endorsed the idea of a community college at the time). And of the four elected City Council members, nary a one opposed the community college idea.
"Yes, Erie County plays home to four universities and a medical school — and we're lucky to have those resources — but that's no reason to say 'no' to a community college, an institution that would serve a different demographic with vastly limited options currently available to it," we added, concluding with the call: "Now it's time to keep that change that Erie voted for rolling. And that change starts with returning to the potential of a community college in Erie County."
Skip ahead to April 2014, and just a few weeks later, then-City Councilman (who's back on council now) Dave Brennan wrote a guest op-ed, proclaiming: "It's time to develop, retain, and attract a talented workforce for Erie." Under his "develop" bullet point, he listed the need for a low-cost educational alternative, "such as a community college."
As months fell from the calendar and into the waste bin of history, conversations seemed quieter about a community college in Erie, but reminders along the way kept voices above a hushed silence. Like when I wrote in March 2016 about one way Detroit was rebuilding and rebounding that included free community college education for city residents — something that's still scalable, I'd argue, in Erie.
Which has brought us back to 2016 — the year I asked you to keep in mind. And no, it wasn't because of any particular elections that occurred that year.
Not long after the Fallows departed Erie in August that year, and shortly after they began writing their modern-day Travels with Charley: In Search of America and Democracy in America with Our Towns, local attorney Ron DiNicola and Erie County Councilman Andre Horton launched the nonprofit Empower Erie "to develop the complex and detailed application necessary for state approval, and to raise awareness about the need for a community college in Erie County," as noted on Empower Erie's website.
The following year, then Erie Mayor Joe Sinnott would be in the final year of his third four-year term and he would be ineligible for reelection due to term limits.
Faced with inevitable change, candidate after candidate began announcing their campaign bids to seek election to the office of mayor — nine in total, seven Democrats and two Republicans. We at the Reader asked "What history will Erie elect to make?" as we began exploring what many heralded as "the most important election in Erie's history."
Earlier in 2017, during the primary election, when nine became two, Joe Schember emerged from the crowded Democratic pack and in a battle of the Jo(h)ns, Persinger upended Whaley. Schember would go on to City Hall after November's victory.
All along the way, two words became frequent mentions at campaign rallies, parties, debates: community college.
Those two words would continue to reverberate throughout the region over the next two years. In our "State of Erie Industry" feature in March 2019, Erie Reader Contributing Editor Jim Wertz reminded readers that "in every community having economic success, there is a common denominator: proximity to a community college. Erie is the largest metropolitan statistical area in the country without a brick-and-mortar community college and whether or not one is established in Erie County will be the difference between regional progress or the continued stagnation of the local economy — industrial, commercial, and personal."
Just a few weeks later, County Executive Dahlkemper penned a guest op-ed for the Reader, explaining that Erie County would be negotiating a partnership with the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College (NPRC), which would be "responsive to the needs of our employers and workers while also being responsible to our taxpayers. If this partnership comes to fruition, we will have affordable, accessible education and top-of-the-line workforce training at no cost to county taxpayers."
In short, NPRC, a quasi-community college serving a nine-county range, offers instruction emblematic of a public community college, with the distinctive feature of lacking a brick-and-mortar campus. By the commonwealth's definition, NPRC is not a public community college, although it does receive some state funding.
Partnership talks weren't new. They had been explored in 2017 when NPRC (founded in 2014 as the Rural Regional College) was just getting started and when the county had sought local sponsorship for a prospective public community college bid. While those at the table seemed to be seated too far apart then, they had scooted closer over time.
A month later, NPRC pulled out. After talks with an established Erie County Task Force, NPRC officials cited changes to the drafted partnership agreement were altered too drastically. They would return to their original plan, leaving the county alone at the table.
"But the game doesn't have to be over if enough regular folks and business leaders can raise a ruckus about why Erie has been excluded from state funding ever since the Pennsylvania Community College Act was passed in 1963," wrote Liz Allen,, Erie Reader contributor and long-time public editor at the Erie Times-News, on Aug. 14, 2019. Allen highlighted the dearth of budget-conscious learning opportunities in Erie while reminding readers that funding was still behind Empower Erie thanks to the Erie Community Foundation. Allen also covered stories of those positively impacted by a community college education, wondering for many Reader readers what was being left on the table if Erie County continued to go unserved by a true public community college.
Nevertheless, they, those championing for Erie County to launch the 15th public community college in the commonwealth, persisted.
2019 gave way to 2020, with the county's community college bid sitting in Harrisburg. Then came the announcement: A review would be scheduled for March 18.
But then came the bigger, global-implication-bearing news: COVID-19.
Slowly, March slipped away to April and April gave out to May and then to June — when finally the first Erie Community College hearings would be held virtually and over the course of two days.
And that brings us to here: First the 9-6 vote in June and the formal 10-5 vote in July.
Now, both Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper and County Council members have put out requests for applications to serve on the college's board of trustees. Dahlkemper will appoint two applicants and each of the seven members of council will appoint one, bringing the total of trustees to nine, to be established 60 days from the July 8 vote.
Additionally, challenges to the board's decision may be filled within 30 days of the decision. But as reported by the Erie Times-News just two days after the "yea" vote, the representatives of the Northern Pennsylvania Regional College, which emerged as the most vocal opponent of the brick-and-mortar community college plan, signaled they would not file an appeal.
After trustees, there will be hires — an administration, a faculty, staff members. There will be land-scouting for the location of the campus. There will be mission statements, vision statements, curriculum drafting. There will be a call for enrollment. And then, there will be classes.
While much may change between now and then — from ongoing developments in the fight against COVID-19 to taking an approved plan and turning it into action — we know this much is true: Erie County's prospect of establishing a public community college, which it has cried out in favor of for decades, is the closest it's ever been to being actualized. Shifting the conversation from When and how might we get a community college here? to How can we ensure we do this right?, we see up ahead in the distance, a shimmering light. Our hope must be that long-fought battles are in Erie's past and that the future won't linger much longer off on the horizon, that this long-had conversation isn't some hotel out west, which we again check out of — but never leave.
Ben Speggen can be contacted at bSpeggen@ErieReader.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @BenSpeggen.