Wicomico Council axes Wor-Wic tuition plan

The Wicomico County Council, by a 5-2 vote at a budget meeting Tuesday, denied a tuition scholarship plan for Wor-Wic Community College, deeply disappointing the county executive.

The county-funded initiative had the support of only two council members, John Hall and Matt Holloway.

“I’m very disappointed,” Culver told the Salisbury Independent.

“I feel what the County Council has done is slapped every one of those kids who got excited about these scholarship awards and said, ‘We don’t care for you if you don’t have the money to pay for it yourself,’” Culver said.

“I remember the public’s reaction when Harris Teeter said we didn’t have enough education to bring a Harris Teeter here. I don’t like to be embarrassed twice. I wanted to see that we give the kids the education we need to have. We don’t want all semi-skilled jobs. There should be a variety of jobs in our community,” Culver said.

But Council President John Cannon said Culver was “sort of being a little bit melodramatic.”

“All we are asking for is specifics,” Cannon said.

The scholarship plan could be passed with the budget, Cannon said, if Culver provides details about who would receive scholarships based on household income and other particulars, including possibly requiring internships and apprenticeships.

Culver said that shouldn’t be decided by the council, but by Dr. Ray Hoy, president of Wor-Wic, who Culver called “the expert and one of the best community college leaders in the area, bar none.”

Culver said he has no plan to send anything back to the council.

Cannon, though, said the council simply voted to “transfer it to contingency so the executive branch could maybe have a resolution put forth with authorization of funding, with guidelines. We want to see a resolution with certain criteria,” Cannon said.

“We’d like to have that in writing as part of the program, all the guidelines and requirements in writing, so we have an opportunity to review that as a council,” he said.

Cannon said if Culver’s office doesn’t have facts and figures assembled before the budget is passed next week, it could be done afterward. Culver said no further fine points are going from his office to the council.

“I don’t see why he would be opposed. It’s just a simple procedure,” Cannon said.

Councilman Marc Kilmer, who voted against the plan, said that while Culver has the right to characterize the council’s actions as he sees fit, the majority of the council “did not think this was something that was a very well thought-out plan.”

“We have the ability to cut spending. That is our job. We did that. We did not close the door on this idea but it could have been presented and handled a lot better,” Kilmer said.

He said he and other members would consider the plan if it was legislative and authorized by resolution, with caps on spending and other specifics in place.

Their vote doesn’t mean the council doesn’t understand the importance of the college or respect it and it certainly was not “any sort of an attack on Wor-Wic,”Kilmer said.

The County Council will take the final vote on the budget June 7. Culver is hoping that, meantime, members receive so much community feedback from those in favor of the scholarship plan that they change their minds and restore funding.

Kilmer said it would have to be presented as a resolution to be considered, and that there isn’t enough time before the June 7 vote.

During discussion at the budget meeting Tuesday, there was talk about using the money earmarked for Wor-Wic to repair roads.

Council President John Cannon and Councilmen Ernie Davis and Larry Dodd said they wanted to have more control over who received scholarship money and who was entitled, Culver said.

But Councilmen Matt Holloway and John Hall, both in favor, asked, “If not now, when?” They both voted in favor.

Culver said he was surprised that Kilmer opposed the scholarship plan, since he was eager to be appointed to the Board of Trustees at Wor-Wic. Kilmer said he was approached by Culver and asked if he’d like to be on that board, accepted and is proud of the appointment.

Culver said the cost of scholarships to the county would have been made up through taxes graduates paid, once they begin working and living in the area. Hoy has predicted that 95 percent of students who study there will stay in the area.

The idea for the scholarship plan began in February, when Culver proposed spending $1.46 million on a scholaship plan, with $252,000 being funded the first year, based on each student carrying 27 credits; $540,000 the second year, based on 27 credits; and $665,000 the third year, based on 27 credits for first and second-year students and 12 credits for third-year students.

The program would have eventually cost the county $665,000 annually.

But at a recent work session, there was lengthy debate about the plan, ending with the council asking for more details.

Kilmer objected to writing a blank check and said funds should be more precisely targeted. He called the present proposal a “shotgun approach that hits a lot of stuff we don’t want to hit.”

There should be a more defined target, with specific needs being addressed, he said. “How are we getting there and what are we going to spend this $600,000 on and get the best bang for our buck?” Kilmer said.

Hoy, who heartily favored the plan, said no shots were missing anything in the program.

To be eligible, students would have had to live in Wicomico at least two years, be current Wicomico high school graduates, apply for and accept all other financial aid available and register for at least 12 credit hours at Wor-Wic.

They would have been required to maintain a 2.0 grade point average and earn one associate’s degree.

At the work session, Councilman Joe Holloway asked if would become so easy to get free tuition under this plan that students would stop seeking grants and financial assistance.

County Administrator Wayne Strausburg suggested the council approve the establishment of an endowment fund at the Community Foundation and set criteria the Community Foundation would employ in terms of awarding scholarships.

Kilmer, though, wanted a contingency “to make sure all that stuff gets taken care of.”

Culver told council members Hoy is an expert in education and shouldn’t be second-guessed or told how to use the money.

In that case, Kilmer said, transfer funds to Wor-Wic and let Hoy decide how to use them.

Hoy said as badly as the college needs funding, the scholarship program would have a more profound impact on students and the community. He said federal funds will be available to counties that have free tuition programs, which could make it less expensive for Wicomico.

“We have to look out for the taxpayers. I’m really uncomfortable with just handing the money over. I think it needs more thought than what’s been presented here,” Kilmer said.

“I don’t see where we can go wrong with this,” Councilman Matt Holloway said.

Hall said if new programs aren’t tried “things will stay the same.”

Davis asked how many students could go to Wor-Wic per year and Strausburg said funding was based on the current graduating class and the number of students expected to enroll the first year.

Council President John Cannon said the tuition money wouldn’t be going to the destitute, but would help families that can afford a college education.

Hoy said the program would make everybody eligible for a college education. “In the communities that have put these types of programs in place … it gives them hope. It gives them opportunity,” he said.

In the 1980s, 99 percent of community college fees were covered by grants, but it is much less today, around 70 percent, leading to more students not being able to afford college and dropping out, Hoy explained.

“We want to start to affect the brain drain in our community,” he said.

Reach Susan Canfora at scanfora@newszap.com.

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