After a year-long petition effort for sparsely populated north Lake County to leave Central Oregon Community College’s taxing district, a state commission denied the request Thursday.

Instead, Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission voted 5-2 to recommend the region move to the Klamath Community College district.

In August 2018, 108 people from north Lake County sent a petition to the state commission asking to leave COCC’s district. Residents said the community college neglected them, despite the taxes they pay toward the school. In the 2018-19 school year, the region paid $117,005 in taxes to COCC, according to the commission.

Ben Cannon, the commission’s executive director, said after a commission meeting Thursday in Gresham that commissioners “expressed considerable sympathy” toward north Lake County and were disappointed with COCC’s lack of services in the region. COCC doesn’t offer any programs in Lake County, and its Bend campus is about a 1.5-hour drive away from North Lake High School. Meanwhile, Klamath Community College offers a tech class for high school or college credit at North Lake High.

About three students per year attend COCC from North Lake High School, according to the commission.

However, Cannon said most commissioners were concerned about setting a dangerous precedent if they granted north Lake County’s wishes to not be in any community college taxing district. In Oregon, all revenue generated by community college taxing districts is combined and distributed to schools throughout the state through a funding formula which takes student population into account.

If north Lake County stopped paying taxes to COCC, it would lower funding for every community college in the state — and other parts of Oregon might follow suit, Cannon said.

“Our staff is concerned that if you endorse this, you might invite every taxpayer in Oregon to say, ‘Hey, take me off, too,’” he said. “It seems like the bar of leaving a community college district ought to be quite high.”

According to Cannon, most commissioners also preferred moving north Lake County into Klamath Community College’s taxing district so the region could maintain the benefits of being in a community college district. Although COCC does not hold any programs in north Lake County, in-district students pay about 40% less per credit than out-of-district, according to the commission.

And in-district high schools can receive community college scholarships.

“A majority of commissioners agree with staff that to remove the district would counter our mission of providing access and affordability for post-secondary education for all Oregonians,” Cannon said.

Cannon said the commissioners wanted north Lake County’s transition to Klamath Community College’s district to happen within a year, as they “expressed a real sense of urgency around that transition.”

In June, the COCC board unanimously agreed to ask the Higher Education Coordinating Commission to reject north Lake County’s petition, but also stated its support for exploring a transition to Klamath Community College for the region.

COCC President Laurie Chesley, who was present at the Gresham commission meeting, said the community college was supportive of the commission’s decision.

“We will work with all parties that the eventual transition to Klamath is a smooth one.”

Silver Lake ranch owner Alan Parks, who led the petition effort, said although he found Oregon’s community college funding system frustrating, he was pleased that Klamath Community College would eventually serve north Lake County.

My feeling is that we will be far better served by Klamath Community College than we have been for 57 years by COCC,” he said. “They just offer more programs that are good for our students.”

David Kerr — the superintendent of North Lake School District, North Lake High’s principal and a supporter of the petition to leave COCC’s district — said he had mixed feelings toward the commission’s decision. Although he felt that being in Klamath Community College’s district was an improvement, his preference was to not be in any taxing district and to instead contract with a community college for less money. He said the Lakeview area in south Lake County contracts with Klamath Community College for services, and pays less than what north Lake County does in taxes.

“If you look around Eastern Oregon, you’ll find many communities and schools that contract with community colleges rather than being in a tax base,” he said. “It’s a good decision at face value, but we’ll see where it goes from here.”

COCC board member Oliver Tatom said he agreed with Kerr that north Lake County shouldn’t have to be tied to any specific community college, but admitted that the commission likely wouldn’t allow that, and moving to Klamath was “the best compromise they could ask for.”

Tatom added that COCC’s struggles in providing services to north Lake County emphasize that the college should make more of an effort in serving its rural in-district students.

“We cannot let north Lake’s departure to Klamath leave us to believe we’re off the hook,” he said. “We’re still on the hook in delivering our promises to rural students.”

COCC board Chair Laura Craska Cooper did not respond to a call for comment. Roberto Gutierrez, Klamath Community College’s president, was not available.

— Reporter: 541-617-7854, jhogan@bendbulletin.com

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