Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer, trying to squeeze money from the state's faltering budget, wants to kill the agency that oversees 17 community colleges.
According to Schaefer administration officials, the governor plans to ask the General Assembly convened yesterday to abolish the State Board for Community Colleges, and he is omitting the board's $1 million budget from next year's spending plan.
The board is a small, 22-year-old agency that helps to guide the academic programs, funding and other policies for the state's network of two-year colleges, which enroll half of Maryland's undergraduates.
Maryland's higher education system is both highly competitive and political, and Schaefer's proposal would eliminate a built-in Annapolis advocate for the community colleges, which offer a relatively low-cost education appealing to part-time and older students. In recent years, the state's four-year colleges have received an unprecedented infusion of money and attention.
"There is the danger of the colleges becoming the lost ball in tall grass," complained one community college president, who asked not to be identified.
At the same time, Schaefer's plan would expand the powers of the Maryland Higher Education Commission, an umbrella agency led by Higher Education Secretary Shaila Aery, who suggested the idea.
Schaefer decided to try to kill the community college agency a few days after some college presidents wrote letters to him protesting a cut in their current budgets. The agency's director, Jean Hunter, had urged the presidents to send the letters to try to forestall a 5 percent reduction, a cut smaller than that imposed on other types of colleges around the state during the last few months.
The letters, sent by nearly a dozen presidents, irked the governor because he had promised to try to help the colleges this year, partly by supporting a new funding method that they have wanted for several years.
Schaefer's aides said yesterday that the spat was unrelated to the proposal. "That is totally unfair. It is just not true," said Paul E. Schurick, the governor's spokesman.
But the attempt to kill the agency startled college presidents, who had met with the governor Tuesday. "I'm sort of stunned that they would do that, when here we were yesterday meeting, and not a word was said," said Robert I. Bickford, president of Prince George's Community College, which enrolls about 37,000 students, most of them part time.
Aery said the change would eliminate a layer of bureaucracy, while freeing $1 million for special incentive grants to the schools.
Aery noted that community colleges' budget requests, academic blueprints and requests to expand their programs currently are reviewed by the community college board, then forwarded to her agency. But without a separate agency, she said, the community colleges would need to form some kind of lobbying group in Annapolis.
The two-year schools briefly employed an independent lobbyist a few years ago, but fired her after the expenditure was criticized.
Schaefer's proposal, which requires the legislature's approval, would represent the first change in Maryland's higher education system since a major reorganization in 1988. That overhaul was intended to streamline the way the schools are governed, eliminating overlaps of academic programs while increasing the quality and funding of the schools.
Community colleges are subsidized by both their counties and the state, and each has a strong, local board of trustees, which would remain intact under Schaefer's proposal.
Hunter, director of the community college board, did not return telephone calls yesterday. Several presidents said they were so surprised by the prospect of losing their state agency that they were not sure what they thought of it.
"My only concern is for the community colleges to have some type of representation up the line," said Thomas Florestano, president of Anne Arundel Community College and chairman of an association of the schools' presidents.
"We've not been that politically influential at the state level," Florestano said. "I don't think there is anything to erode."