By Oliver Tatom

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As a second generation Central Oregon Community College student, I am proud of the college and what it has done for my family and our community. However, I am also aware of its flaws, including its limited investment in online learning. As a working parent, I had to take most of my nursing prerequisite courses through other community colleges, paying out-of-district tuition even as we paid taxes to COCC. This is one reason I am committed to advocate on behalf of unconventional students.

In August, The Bulletin reported North Lake County residents were petitioning to leave the COCC district. I wrote a letter to the Desert Whispers newspaper imploring readers not to give up on the college. “I am one of the ones who wanted to go back to school,” editor Lisa Cooper wrote back, “but find it only a dream because we live so far out.”

Then I made the 90-minute drive to Silver Lake and listened as petitioners made their case to the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC). Lead petitioner Alan Parks recalled the enthusiasm he felt as an eighth-grader in 1961 when COCC promised to bring a welding program to his rural community. His parents voted to join the district. Half a century later, Mr. Parks is still waiting on that welding program.

In response, COCC leadership argued that North Lake County residents, like all district residents, enjoy the benefit of in-district tuition. Of course, the cost of attendance is significantly higher for a student commuting from Fort Rock than for one who lives in Bend. This is equality without equity.

If this sounds familiar, it should. North Lake County residents tried to leave COCC nearly 30 years ago. In response, the college hired a coordinator to work in the North Lake School and offered a few classes. A few years later, college administrators laid off the coordinator and eliminated the classes, citing a need to cut costs.

That coordinator was Patty Effingham. She is now an accountant in Christmas Valley and one of the petitioners asking to leave COCC. She also serves as the treasurer of the North Lake EMS District. I asked her what services COCC, with an EMS education program and an American Heart Association training center, could offer her agency.

Patty told me North Lake EMS already receives services from Klamath Community College. Volunteers recently completed EMT basic training through a hybrid program, with classes online and skill labs conveniently scheduled over a few weekends in Klamath Falls. She said KCC plans to offer a similar program for Advanced EMT certification.

KCC also offers classes through its partnership with the North Lake School District. According to Superintendent David Kerr, North Lake students are on track to complete 250 college credits this year, all through KCC.

Lake County residents can choose from five online degrees at KCC, while COCC offers no online degrees. And yet, even as they are receiving better service from KCC, residents in Fort Rock and Christmas Valley continue to pay taxes to COCC. Is this fair?

At its last meeting, HECC directed COCC to spend six months studying ways to improve rural services. This is significant because it delays any action until after the 2019 session of the state Legislature, and any change to the district boundary requires legislative approval. This means North Lake County likely could not leave the district until at least 2021.

The COCC board of directors will soon hire a new college president, and this decision will tell us much about their priorities going forward. After sixty years, will the college finally follow through on its promises to rural residents? I hope so. But if it does not, then HECC and state legislators should allow North Lake County to leave.

— Oliver Tatom is president of the COCC Nursing Class of 2019.