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Dispute Continues Over Santa Fe Community College Plans for Higher Education Center

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The governing board of the Santa Fe Community College on Thursday finally got to face the agency blocking its plans to construct a voter-approved Higher Education Center.

What resulted was a continuing dispute over what the law requires to approve the construction, and a lingering question of whether the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez may oppose the project.

Asked directly whether he thought the center was a good idea, Higher Education Secretary Jose Garcia wouldn’t answer. Instead, he told the board that he has to distinguish between what’s good for “Santa Fe or for the entire system as a whole.”

“The governor has said she wants to stop the proliferation of buildings and campuses and branches and twigs and what have you to make sure you as taxpayers get the bang for your buck,” Garcia said.

He hypothesized that when he brings the matter up with Martinez, she’ll ask if approval “will lead to people saying ‘Let’s put up learning centers all over the place.’ ”

But since the Learning Center would bring together several universities to offer classes in one location for students to earn a bachelor’s degree, SFCC President Sheila Ortego has said that it actually works against higher education proliferation.

Groundbreaking on the building was supposed to be last month on land on the campus of the Santa Fe University of Art and Design, but the Higher Education Department would not give the go-ahead. Garcia sent a letter to Ortego saying approval was required from the Legislature and state Board of Finance.

Ortego told the Journal last night that she is seeking an Attorney General’s opinion on the legal issues and will also ask the governor to put the Learning Center on her call of items to be considered in the next legislative session.

Garcia told the board Thursday that, even though the Legislature last year approved the college’s purchase of land in Santa Fe specifically for building the new center, SFCC officials have to go back and get permission from the Legislature to actually construct the building.

“The most relevant statute is the Learning Center Act,” Garcia said, reading aloud a stipulation that “no new public post-secondary educational institute, branch campus or off-campus instructional center shall be created except as specifically created by the Legislature.”

But SFCC lawyer Rachel King said Garcia wasn’t reading from the Learning Center Act — that quote comes from a different provision on educational institutions.

And by letter of the law, King said, a “post-secondary institute, branch campus or off-campus instructional center” is not what the community college is trying to build. Those are built by school districts or four-year colleges, she said, and a community college’s campus is its entire taxing district.

Garcia was long gone by the time King explained this to the board, having left immediately after making his case.

The Higher Education Center is envisioned as a consortium where four-year universities will offer their curricula to community college graduates, who won’t need to commute out of Santa Fe to continue their education. Students could jump immediately from associate’s degrees into junior status with one of New Mexico’s other colleges to work toward earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from those schools.

A pilot program at SFCC this semester already has 550 students working toward degrees from New Mexico Highlands University and the University of New Mexico, according to the school. The new center will be needed within three years to address growing enrollment, said Tina Ludutsky-Taylor, program interim director.

King said the school has followed the letter of the Learning Center Act, and no community college has ever had a capital project approved by the Board of Finance.

Ortego said that she doesn’t think the Board of Finance would approve the building. She asked if the Higher Education Department would be willing to settle the matter through mediation. Garcia said he needed to consult with Gov. Martinez before he could commit to that.

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