AUGUSTA — State Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, says she wants the Legislature to consider the idea of creating a single board to guide the state’s higher education systems.

On Monday, the University of Maine System Chancellor James Page announced plans to consolidate the administrative functions for the system’s seven campuses, but Rotundo and her supporters would like to take that one big step farther and join the system’s board of directors with the Maine Community College System board.

Rotundo said her legislation would not merge the two systems entirely, but it would create one central body that oversees both. The proposal has been tried before, but was ultimately defeated because of concerns from the community college system, Rotundo said.

“I think that both systems are very strong and that neither needs to worry about being harmed by creating one unified vision for higher education,” Rotundo said.

But members from both boards said they weren’t sure the timing was right for a board merger.

The legislation comes on the heels of the resignation of  John Fitzsimmons, the long-serving president of the state’s community college system.  Fitzsimmons left at the urging and criticism of Republican Gov. Paul LePage.  Fitzsimmons said he was leaving because he feared financial retaliation against the system if he did not step down.

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Some lawmakers have suggested that Fitzsimmons departure may make it easier to bring the two systems under one governing body.

But Rotundo and others have also praised Fitzsimmons’ administration of the community college system.

Her bill “recognizes the importance of the mission of the community college system and the university system and both systems are very important to the state of Maine,” Rotundo said.

“This is not about merging systems but about creating one unified vision so that there can be better articulation between the two systems,” said Rotundo, the House chair of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee.

Rotundo said one governing board for both systems could lead to administrative efficiencies and could also help both systems best use the various campus space they have available.

She said key policy initiatives like streamlining the system used to transfer credits between each system and programs that allow high school students to earn early college credits could be more easily served with a single board.

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“It just gets everybody thinking much more holistically and beyond the savings, which I think are there — beyond harming any programs or the missions of the institutions, is the fact that the people of Maine will be better served by having the state with one unified vision of where they feel higher education should be heading and how it works,” Rotundo said.

State Rep. Victoria Kornfield, D-Bangor, the House chair of the Legislature’s Education Committee, which has jurisdiction of the higher education systems, said she thinks Rotundo’s bill has merit.

But Kornfield also said she believes it would be the first step to a full merger of the two systems.

She said that doesn’t mean there would be any fewer offerings for students but a more efficient system that would help reduce tuition costs for students.

“Because we are so concerned about college affordability, something that has got to happen in the future is better use of buildings and administration,” Kornfield said.  She said in many places the state’s community college and university campuses were less than 1.5 miles apart.

“I think their missions are very different, and if we can think of a way to honor the missions of each type of school, then we could do a lot better with combining administrations and using buildings effectively,” Kornfield said.

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Kornfield said she understands why Rotundo isn’t saying the systems should be merged completely, but, “I think merging the systems is in our future.”

“The important thing is that their missions stay what they are today, because they are very different missions, and each system is very good at what it does today,” Kornfield said.

But Sam Collins, the president of the University of Maine System Board of Trustees, said Tuesday he didn’t think the timing was right for a unified board.

Collins said ongoing changes with the UMaine System needed time to be implemented, and he expected those changes to result in real savings and new efficiencies.

Collins said he and other members of the UMaine board agree with Rotundo’s objectives and understand why lawmakers might want to move towards a consolidated board or even a consolidated system.

But for now he said he would prefer the two systems take advantage of changes in leadership at the community college system and the restructuring of the UMaine system administration to identify new ways to collaborate.

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“I guess what I would like to do is create a committee that identifies some opportunities and then we have a plan for executing those opportunities and looking at a three- to five-year strategy as to how we could better collaborate,” Collins said. “Maybe the end result is a unified board, but we take it a step at a time and empower us or allow us to come up with that strategy or come up with that plan.”

Collins said he would understand if lawmakers were skeptical the two boards could get there given the idea of a unified board has been explored in the past and shot down.

Shawn Moody, a Gorham business man and former independent candidate for governor, was appointed by LePage to serve on both the UMS board as well as the Maine Community College System Board.

Moody said he agreed with Collins that the timing wasn’t right for a board merger.

He said another option might be to have more people serving on both boards to better cross-pollinate the idea of a unified board, but with the changes afoot in both systems, he believed a forced merger would do more harm than good.

 “I know the theory conceptually sounds good, but due to the complexity and the competitive nature of what each system faces, to consolidate the board at this point in time would be ineffective, and in my view, it could be a setback,” Moody said.

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Moody also said serving on both boards is a huge commitment of time and finding the right board members would be critical.  

Moody said that observation was not a dig at any of the current members who serve with him on both boards but a recognition of the fact the work is demanding.

He said the departure of Fitzsimmons from the community college system took that board by surprise.

“There was some communication between President Fitzsimmons and the governor’s office that obviously was strained or hadn’t happened,” Moody said. “And you can ask other board members, but it was really unknown to the board, we just didn’t realize that that tension had built up to that degree.”

Moody said the changes in both systems did present new opportunities, but it was going to take a little time to sort all of it out and Rotundo’s bill could artificially rush that.

“With new leadership, it’s going to take a few months here to figure out the priorities,” Moody said.  He said the community college system board did have a luncheon meeting planned with LePage for March to sort out the priorities.

LePage’s Press Secretary Adrienne Bennett said the governor’s office would not comment on Rotundo’s proposal until they see the bill in draft form.

Bennett said LePage was open to any and all ideas that would seek to improve both systems and ultimately protect the interests of students by enhancing the affordability of higher education. 

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