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Community college board debates police training as system expects enrollment surge

The State Board of Community Colleges clashed over spending more than $100,000 on police training as community colleges brace for what could be an unprecedented spike in enrollment. 

During a tense meeting Friday, June 5, board members voted to beef up police de-escalation and community relations training as protests over the killing of George Floyd continue. The debate over police training arose as the N.C. community college system faces both a surge in enrollment and tight budgets from the COVID-19 shutdown.

North Carolina boasts the nation’s third-largest community college system, but students could soon overload it. Community college enrollment traditionally rises and ebbs with unemployment — and more than a million people have filed for unemployment benefits in North Carolina. Some community colleges are already seeing upticks in summer enrollment, but school officials aren’t certain those upticks will spike in the fall. 

N.C. Community Colleges President Peter Hans pointed to the state’s expected $4 billion budget shortfall. The Senate Rules Committee moved to send community colleges $41.5 million in federal coronavirus relief funds, but community college leaders say it won’t be enough if enrollment spikes. 

“We desperately need that $41 million to provide budget stability and capacity,” said Hans. 

During the Great Recession, Wake Technical Community College’s enrollment soared 28% in three years, and lines for registration sometimes stretched outside the building and across the parking lot. But the college struggled to meet student demand as funding levels remained stagnant, Scott Ralls, president of the college, told Carolina Journal.

Even before the pandemic, Wake Tech had waitlists twice as large as some of its programs. Already, summer enrollment has jumped 19% from 2019, and students’ nonpayment has risen with it, Ralls said.

Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College can absorb a 10% increase in enrollment, Joseph Barwick, A-B Tech Community College interim president, told CJ.

“If it’s too much more than that, we won’t have the money to offer the classes,” Barwick said. “If there’s a tremendous spike, it’s going to be a stretch, and the last thing we want to do is turn away students.”

Hans said community colleges’ law enforcement training gives the schools a unique opportunity to bridge racial disparities. 

“Law enforcement officers have very difficult and often dangerous responsibilities. They need the best training and tools available to de-escalate tense situations and successfully interact with all members of the community,” Hans said. 

Board member Frank Johnson said $100,000 was a “token gesture” and not enough to enact meaningful change.

“This just seems like throwing money to make an impression,” Johnson said. 

The $100,000 is a first step, said Hans, and money could increase in the next fiscal year. 

“We believe this is an action we can take right now in the short term with an eye towards the longer-term issues,” Hans said. 

Hans argued community colleges break down racial disparities by offering more affordable education.

“Our colleges strive to tear down barriers, overcome historical inequities, and provide economic opportunity for all,” Hans said. 

Whether community colleges can offer that opportunity to all students depends on funding and enrollment. 

“That’s the community college dilemma,” Ralls said. “Enrollment goes down when budgets are good, so there’s no funding during those times. But when enrollments are spiking, there’s not budget funds. It’s a total catch-22.”

Some community colleges are beginning to restart in-person programs. But reopening hit another snag after rioting and curfews blocked night classes. 

Board member David Willis said the board should get more information about police training before spending more than $100,000. Johnson blasted the idea. 

“If somebody puts their knee on your neck and kills you, because they’ve not been trained, they don’t follow the rules of being a policeman, that’s factual knowledge,” Johnson said. 

Board member William Holder — a Wake County business owner and the brother of former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder — called for measures to ensure money was being used effectively. The board couldn’t provide concrete measurements, but it’s talking with Wake Technical Community College and others to allocate the funding. 

“The time is overdue for us to examine police operations and police relationships with the communities in which they work,” Holder said. “But if I don’t do what I’m trained to do it’s money wasted.”