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Community colleges glad for new interest

But some doubt governor’s plan

KAYANA SZYMCZAK FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

“The labs are very much underequipped,’’ says Margarette Casimir, a nursing student at Roxbury Community College.

Community college leaders and students said yesterday that they welcomed attention from Governor Deval Patrick, who on Monday called for sweeping changes to the 15-school system, even as they questioned whether his plan could make it through the Legislature intact.

In his State of the State address, Patrick proposed focusing the system on preparing students for technical jobs and centralizing the system by giving new authority to the Board of Higher Education. The board would distribute funding to individual schools based on several criteria, including enrollment and student success, and would also have a hand in setting student fees and deciding how the resulting revenue should be spent.

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Finally, the board would create new guidelines for hiring presidents and review the leaders’ performance each year.

The governor’s proposal includes a $10 million systemwide funding increase, a challenge to the business community to match the amount, and a provision that would funnel some federal workforce development grants to the schools.

Patrick made his first public pitch to business leaders in a speech yesterday at Suffolk Construction in Boston.

“Think about what we could do if we had a real unified system,’’ he said. “We have absolutely no illusions about how heavy a lift this will be. Change is rarely easy. Sometimes it feels uniquely difficult on Beacon Hill. But we have shown, all of us, that when we pull together, we can make even the most difficult or challenging or elusive change happen.’’

Mayor Thomas M. Menino also spoke at the event, praising the governor’s proposal as a way to better align the colleges’s academic offerings with employment opportunities.

For instance, Roxbury Community College is “in the shadow of some of the greatest health care institutions in the world,’’ Menino said. “Why shouldn’t they be training people for those jobs?’’

Roxbury students said they were surprised at Menino’s assessment. Three of them noted later on campus that the college’s nursing program is already widely respected, with high passing rates on board exams, but they agreed that the school needs more resources.

“The labs are very much underequipped,’’ said Margarette Casimir, a nursing student. “The microscopes are defective or missing pieces. And slides break easily, but it takes a long time to get them replaced. We need more money, yes, and also someone who knows how to distribute the money wisely.’’

Presidents of the colleges received the proposed changes more tentatively yesterday.

Many said they were delighted to have the spotlight after years of feeling overshadowed by four-year colleges and universities.

“For the governor to say we can fundamentally lower the unemployment rate is quite a vote of confidence,’’ said John O’Donnell, president of MassBay Community College.

But several of the schools’ leaders questioned the need for a more powerful central governing board. The colleges are already collaborating to improve graduation rates and last year jointly received a $20 million federal work-force development grant. Some said they felt left out of the discussions that led to Patrick’s proposal. Others said they were concerned about ceding autonomy to the Board of Higher Education, even though their own local boards would be left in place.

“We’re thrilled that the governor recognizes the importance of the work we do and that he wants to support that with more funding,’’ said Kathleen Schatzberg, president of Cape Cod Community College. “The concern I have is that I’m not sure an office in Boston could understand local needs as well as our local board.’’

However, the changes would not result in “a massive central bureaucracy,’’ said Richard Freeland, commissioner of higher education. “There’s no thought in my mind that the Board of Higher Education is going to try to take over operating the campuses.’’

In November, two reports outlined the challenges the colleges face. One, from the Boston Foundation, called for dramatic changes similar to Patrick’s.

“I didn’t get one Christmas card from a community college president,’’ said Paul Grogan, the foundation’s chief. But, he added, “I think there’s some acknowledgment now that the schools aren’t getting the support they need to get, and they’re not going to get it by simply saying, ‘We need more support.’ ’’

Mary Carmichael can be reached at mary.carmichael@globe.com.
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