In her sixth visit to Dodge City since becoming the president at FHSU earlier this summer, Mirta Martin promises a more open, inclusive merging discussion.
The new president at Fort Hays State University promised to shine light on the process to merge with Dodge City Community College while speaking to residents at a town hall-style meeting, Tuesday.
Mirta Martin also made several promises on some of the most persistent concerns from college employees regarding their jobs, remedial education and the funding of athletics, a major driver of not just sports recruitment but student recruitment at the college.
The visit to Dodge City, the sixth since assuming the presidency earlier this summer, was part of a multi-stop tour to engage with the residents of Dodge City and the press in an effort to reverse "misinformation" about the proposed merger.
One effort will be the introduction of a "portal" on the Internet with documents, meeting schedules, agenda and minutes from the committee and subcommittee meetings that began in earnest, Monday, with the first meeting of the academic subcommittee. A finance committee will meet in Hays later this month.
"I cannot and will not make excuses for what happened before I got here," Martin said, claiming that transparency will be a hallmark of her now five-week-old presidency.
The transparency will also work against rumors circulating through the community, she said, the most persistent being that the merger is a hostile takeover.
"This is not a hostile takeover. I've been through a hostile takeover. I was in banking in the '80s. This is a marriage," Martin said.
Multiple times she told the audience inside the Dodge House Hotel that if the community of Dodge City didn't want the merger, it wouldn't happen. Less defined, however, is how residents would make their opinions known as the timeline to craft, propose and see enabling legislation and funding passed ends with the 2015 legislative session.
Martin and Hammond said representatives from Dodge City serve on every subcommittee and in Shane Bangerter, the community has a representative on the Kansas Board of Regents, the overseer of the state university system.
As state previously, a public vote on the merger is unlikely, and it was the understanding that the members of the college board were elected to represent the interests of their constituency.
"Their vote should be representative of your wishes," Martin said, referring to the two unanimous votes by the college board to proceed with the merger process. "If it's not, that's fine. If you don't want the merger to occur, it won't happen."
Trustees Floris Jean Hampton and Don Webb have recanted their second affirmative votes that were cast following requests by the Board of Regents and the City of Dodge City to solve the debate over the validity of the first vote. At the town hall meeting, Hampton said the question of whether the second vote by the board was definitive is still questionable.
The other issue that plays into the relative speed of the proceedings is the timing of the university biennial budget, set to be approved in 2015.
The difference between waiting and moving forward with the legislative element is a decision to have the conversation before funding is secured or after, Martin said. Without the funding and without the enabling legislation, no merger is possible. If the window closes to the Legislature's next university system appropriations bill, the merger would be delayed at least three years or longer.
On the proposed timeline, the combined institution with its new technical college and four-year degree programs could open as soon as fall 2017.
Twice bitten, FHSU leaders prefer to have the funding and legislative support in place as soon as possible. FHSU previously attempted to merger with Pratt and Barton County community colleges.
"I'm not building an airplane mid-flight," Martin said.
In that time, the university and the college will complete an operating agreement that builds on the white paper authored by Hammond. Martin said the white paper is "a platform for discussion. It is not set in stone."
Most of the issues recently raised by critical voices to the merger will be addressed in the enabling legislation that college, university and Board of Regents will craft prior to January, Hammond said.
Among them is a question over the funding of athletics, a source of pride at the college and a significant student recruiting tool. DCCC Finance Director Vada Hermon alerted planners to a $960,000 discrepancy primarily due to the state statutory prohibition on granting scholarships to out-of-county students.
That issue can be solved by changing the "40 year old legislation" that restricted community colleges from using property tax dollars to give scholarships to out-of-county students, Hammond said. He believes it will be broadly supported by community colleges throughout the state and will be meeting with several college presidents and board leaders in the coming weeks to discuss the issue.
The rest of the enabling legislation — aside from the $10 million one-time appropriation to build a technical institute building and $5 million in recurring funds — is expected to be written broadly, Hammond said, and not specifically for the merger of FHSU and DCCC, though he added that he thinks there is only "room for one or two of these institutions if this is successful," he said.
Martin also said that the instructors who are currently qualified to teach at DCCC under Higher Learning Commission requirements would continue to have employment at the new institution. The final product will require adding instructors, not removing them, Martin added.
DCCC President Don Woodburn also said the non-teaching staff would be looked after.
Martin also said that the existing functions of the community college would be maintained, including remedial, or developmental, education.
FHSU currently operates remedial education to get students at college-credit levels of education, Hammond said. Of the university's $120 million budget, $33 million comes from the state. The money can be found, he said.
The at-times tense town hall meeting will be the first of several throughout the merging process, Martin and Hammond said, and Martin will be back in Dodge City next week for more meetings at the college with faculty and staff members.