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Senate leader hits Patrick proposal on community colleges

Associated Press

Massachusetts Senate President Therese Murray took questions from reporters.

Senate President Therese Murray expressed strong reservations yesterday about Governor Deval Patrick’s plan to more closely coordinate the state’s 15 community colleges, suggesting the proposal could lead to Boston bureaucrats setting agendas for campuses all over the state.

“I do have concerns about taking the local control away and putting it all under the Board of Higher Ed in Boston,’’ Murray said in an interview on WCAI. “Does Boston know what the Berkshires need? Does Boston know what the Cape needs and the business needs of the Cape? I think we need to go a little bit slower.’’

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Patrick has proposed consolidating budgetary, leadership, and curriculum decisions within the state Board of Higher Education, arguing that a more streamlined approach would save money, improve students’ skills, and prepare Massachusetts residents to fill as many as 120,000 job openings for which employers say they lack qualified workers.

Education Secretary Paul Reville, said the bill does not eliminate local control and seeks a balance between the influence of local boards and state policymakers.

“I think what we’re trying to do here is not to move control of the community colleges to Boston, but to recognize that there’s both a local function and a state function to community colleges,’’ he said in a phone interview after touring Bristol Community College with the governor.

“Right now we’re not a system; we’re a very loose affiliation of 15 separate campuses. What we’re trying to do is strike a balance by having some incentives in the system for colleges to collaborate.

“There’s a legitimate policy discussion about state versus local,’’ he continued. “What we’re saying is, let’s not have it be one or the other.’’

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The Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a group of business executives that has allied with and advised the Patrick administration on policy initiatives, intends to lobby legislators in support of the proposal, according to the group’s president, Dan O’Connell, a former aide to the governor.

O’Connell said part of convincing wary lawmakers to back the proposal is to highlight other states, such as Virginia, where he said a centralized community college system has succeeded in “reflecting the regional economy’s needs but under an overall program where the best ideas are being shared between’’ 23 schools.

“I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of opposition in the Legislature on those points,’’ he said.

Patrick has also called for a greater emphasis on “middle skills’’ training to help ready Massachusetts residents to fill employers’ unmet needs. On that point, Murray agreed.

“I think he’s absolutely right on talking about midlevel training and midlevel skills,’’ Murray said. “We have all of these medical companies I talked about earlier, the life sciences and the health care institutions we have are in need of trained individuals that meet certain skills

“There are approximately between 120,000 and 130,000 of those jobs that are going unfilled. . . . I absolutely agree we need to change our curriculum in both the vocational schools and some of the community colleges, so that they train for the jobs of today and tomorrow and not yesterday.’’

Murray also said that credits within the community college system should be transferable from one institution to another. She called policies that prevent that transferability in some cases crazy.

Murray’s comment on the governor’s plan offered a glimpse of what Patrick warned last week would be a “blood fight’’ on Beacon Hill over his community college plan.

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