FHSU president and former president Mirta Martin and Ed Hammond spoke about some of the most persistent questions surrounding the proposed merger.

Many of the largest questions that have complicated the first open discussions about merging Dodge City Community College into Fort Hays State University will be addressed through the legislation that will be required to make the plan work, FHSU president Mirta Martin and former president Ed Hammond said, Tuesday.

The other questions, especially regarding the viability of an exit plan and the continued accreditation of DCCC in the case of calamity is being discussed with both school's accrediting agency, the Higher Learning Commission, they said.

While the duo said they did not like the idea of entering the "marriage" with thoughts of divorce, they understood the concerns and believe the issue has been all but solved through discussions with the Higher Learning Commission.

One ongoing concern is if the merger took place and failed is the fate of the college's ability to provide accredited degrees and take advantage of the medley of private, non-profit and federal grants that help fund the school. Restarting accreditation, a guarantee by a third party that the school is worthy, could take several years if it is disrupted.

"The accreditation issue is a red herring," Hammond said. "I've discussed it with the Higher Learning Commission and am in the process of getting a letter for them that says 'This is exactly how you manage this transition so we keep all the accreditations.' We're as worried about accreditation as Dodge City is. … What they're telling us though is there are more than one way to do it, we'll have choices."

"We will safeguard accreditation to the core," Martin added. "We cannot jeopardize our accreditation."

"And the HLC has guaranteed that won't happen," Hammond said.

One option would be for FHSU and DCCC to maintain two institutional identification numbers, similar to Washburn University and Washburn Tech, while being parts of a single university, Hammond said.

Martin and Hammond also addressed the $960,000 shortfall projected by DCCC Finance Director Vada Hermon, primarily due to academic scholarships, a major contributor to the residential student population.

Under current law Hermon's numbers are correct, Hammond said, as colleges are prevented from spending property tax revenues on scholarships for out-of-county students. One goal of the enabling legislation would be to change that law.

Unlike earlier statements by proponents that the $5 million in recurring state funds the merger will be spent solely on the new technical institute, that money is now seen more generally in support of the merger as a whole with its three academic units.

"This is a point we want to make sure the citizens of Dodge City hear," Martin said. "There have been concerns circulating about property tax increases resulting from this merger. That could not be further way from the fact, quite the opposite."

Hammond added: "That's been a point where we drew the line in the sand. If the state's not going to invest $5 million, I took the position a year ago this wouldn't work — there's no merger — and the reason we needed the $5 million is to have some property tax buy down here, we needed the $5 million to fund the new entity we're creating. Those resources can be used in any way; they are a general fund allocation to Fort Hays for Dodge City. It can be used any way we want them for any specific purpose. It doesn't come with a line item."

By their analysis, the local property tax burden should be able to be decreased by $1 million, DCCC board willing.

As for the wide variance in enrollment numbers that have been thrown out since the plan was first made public in March, most of that will be determined by whether the DCCC board decides to stay in a two-year athletics conference or move to a four-year program, Hammond said.

A four-year athletics program would draw more of the four year students, perhaps as many as 500, he said.

"If the decision is to stay at a two-year athletic program, they're probably would not as many students. There are many decisions that have not been made yet — many are local decisions — that will determine that number," Hammond said.

The FHSU leaders also said that programming in the upper division college, the portion awarding baccalaureate degrees, will largely depend on demand as measured from the "pipeline" of students going through the college. FHSU will not know what four-year programs it should place in Dodge City without having that information, but once it does, it should be able to create a fairly accurate response to that demand.

Another big question is whether the technical college will be able to find the 10 corporate partners spelled out in the "white paper," the initial, broad-strokes framework for the merger.

Since the proposed merger has emerged, there has been significant interest from companies in the state, Hammond said, far more than he originally guessed. Those companies will likely get the first shot and a meeting is planned in the near future with state Commerce Secretary Pat George.

The Legislature is going to want to have some certainty before it approves the merger, Hammond said, and a more definite idea of willing companies and trade sectors will be put together before the legislative session starts in January.

The interest from trade associations has been a surprise, Hammond said. Originally he believed the target companies would be fairly large with a need to fill 100 jobs per year. Instead, he has gotten interest from groups of companies that alone may not fit the bill, but together do.

"I had not given any thought of that at all. At first when it came up our answer was 'Well, we'll look at it.' I think we'll look harder at it, now," Hammond said. "With that new additional thinking, there's no problem getting 10 players."

Martin and Hammond came to Dodge City to speak to residents in a town hall-style meeting, and to dispel "misinformation" and rumors about the merger, they said.

Martin, five weeks on the job, said she is fully dedicated to the merger, a position that was strengthened during an earlier visit to Dodge City when she met an FHSU student who started at Dodge City before earning his Bachelor's degree in Hays. He was with his sisters who said they would not be able to follow the same path because their parents would not allow the daughters to leave the community.

As a Hispanic woman, Martin said she understood the family pressures and dynamics, and that when she was younger was expected to leave the family home "in a white dress."

The merger will give those residents of Dodge City an option for earning a Bachelor's degree in a college setting, Martin said.

"You've got to have the same set of values (for the merger) to succeed. You've got to be community-centered. Those are our values. That's why this marriage is just that. And that's why I'm asking people to look into this union with an open mind."