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Editorial: Look more to collaborate

Community college officials tout the $30 million project for a new building to house courses in STEM, science, technology, engineering and math as a surefire way to enhance the institution’s image among potential and current students.

Sound familiar?

No, this is not yet another building on the North Campus of the Erie County Community College. That STEM building has been completed and opened in January.

This latest proposed $30 million project for a STEM building would be at Niagara County Community College. Leaders at that school have decided they want more “wow factor” for its campus.

The later phase of this particular project would include renovation of Building C, the existing space used for those courses. There is an argument for moving forward, made by Lindsay Rose, assistant professor of chemistry, who said not much has changed since the campus opened in 1973.

But the decision flows, at least in part, from unhelpful state policies that encourage New York’s community colleges to compete for students rather than to collaborate. No county wants to see its students cross county lines to attend a community college, because it costs “charge back” fees that can reach into the millions of dollars.

NCCC’s Board of Trustees authorized a feasibility study on the project more than a year ago. And, no surprise, the report showed a need for expanded and improved facilities. Interim President William J. Murabito indicated that the $30 million would likely pay only for the new building. Renovation of the current space, most of which would be turned over to the college’s nursing program, would require a second phase of the project.

Science, technology, engineering and math is a focus at the college. Every student, regardless of major, must take a STEM course in order to obtain their degrees. Indeed, having that knowledge will bode well in whatever careers they choose, as technology blends into many facets.

The other piece here is competition. NCCC leaders have no desire to be beaten out by a shiny new STEM building one county over. It makes tragic sense, given state policies that drive decision-making by the colleges. But at what point do the two campuses realize that there are not enough students to go around and that they are better off spending their dollars more wisely?

Even without a change in state policies, both counties need to figure out how to work together. Going after the same thinning population of students, while spending multi-millions of dollars in public money dilutes the resources of both colleges.

Niagara County residents should take into account the well laid out arguments being made for a new STEM building on the NCCC campus. Undoubtedly, it should attract more students, provide better job training for the couple hundred science and engineering jobs open within 15 miles of campus, as Rose explained to The News.

The new two-story building, at 93,800 square feet, would feature upgraded laboratories for biology, chemistry, engineering and technology. And as part of the project, there would be six greenhouses, totaling 11,300 square feet.

State University of New York regulations dictate that SUNY pays half the cost of all approved building construction projects. The sponsor being Niagara County, pays the other half. County Manager Richard E. Updegrove has made no commitments to funding a STEM center.

Whatever form the project takes, it should involve re-engineering and disruption of the kind that is occurring in the real world. That is, pursue the feasibility of cross-border cooperation between counties.

There is unfortunate logic to the NCCC plan, but creative thinkers could come up with even better ideas to educate students and conserve resources.

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