After two years of wrangling with the administration of Gov. Susana Martinez, Santa Fe Community College has the approval it needs to build a new Higher Education Center on Siringo Road.
On Wednesday, the state Higher Education Department’s Capital Projects Review Committee finally gave its consent for the $9.8 million project.
The committee previously had refused to consider the SFCC’s plans for the 31,000 square-foot facility, where colleges and universities from around the state will offer classes.
The Martinez administration has argued that the community college needed legislative approval for the project, while SFCC officials said the college already had met all the requirements of a state statute specifically designed for learning centers like the one planned on property that formerly was part of the old College of Santa Fe campus.
The SFCC filed a lawsuit over the dispute and in November, state District Judge Raymond Ortiz sided with the college. Ortiz noted that legislative approval in the case of learning centers is particularly “conspicuous by its absence” from the state learning center statute.
Ortiz ordered the HED to review the college’s plans according to the narrow provisions of the law, which have mostly have to do with whether bond money is being properly spent and whether the plans conform with department regulations.
SFCC officials said Wednesday that construction should start in the spring, with a goal of trying to offer classes at the center in the fall of 2014.
“On the eve of its 30th anniversary, Santa Fe Community College will be able to expand opportunities for local students to pursue bachelor’s and master’s degrees through unique partnerships with our state’s colleges and universities,” SFCC president Ana “Cha” Guzmán said in a prepared statement.
A pilot version of the Higher Education Center program has been operational on SFCC’s Richards Avenue campus for the past two years.
Guzmán said the community college will grow into the Siringo building, initially using only the first floor with about 15,000 square feet.
She said that in addition to university partners holding classes at the new center, some existing SFCC programs which are now delivered in other locations around Santa Fe will relocate to the new facility.
The community college first got HED approval for preliminary plans for the center in 2009, under then-Gov. Bill Richardson. In 2010, Santa Fe voters overwhelmingly approved a bond issue to fund the project, and the Legislature approved the sale of land for the center early in 2011.
But by mid-2011, after Martinez had taken over as governor, HED began refusing to review final plans for the center, taking the position that legislative approval was required.
The Martinez administration was concerned about the proliferation of duplicative or unnecessary branch campuses, but SFCC leaders maintain the learning center represents the opposite of campus proliferation — allowing Santa Fe-area residents to access four-year and post-graduate classes without the establishment of branch campuses by state colleges and universities.
Guzman added Wednesday, “We anticipate in the near future a vibrant student community made up of SFCC students, Higher Education Center students and high school dual credit students, all pursuing their educational dreams.
“This approval will allow SFCC to open the next level of educational opportunity — bachelor’s and master’s degrees — to our community. With the Higher Education Center at a convenient location, we are removing barriers to a college degree. We are facilitating attendance to students who have waited, who have given up, or who may have had to choose between family and job and college.”