Bills to establish independent college in Carlsbad pass House, Senate Education Committees


New Mexico Rep. Cathrynn Brown speaks to the House Education Committee on Feb. 24 through Zoom in support of House Bill 212.

Two identical bills with the intent to grant the New Mexico State University Carlsbad branch independence have recently been granted do-pass recommendations by their respective education committees in the current legislative session in New Mexico.

The Carlsbad Higher Education Task Force was created in Oct. 2020 to investigate the possibility of establishing an independent community college out of the existing branch. The inspiration to create the task force came about after the Carlsbad branch’s president position was cut without prior consultation from officials in Carlsbad.

According to an editorial authored by Vice Chair of Carlsbad Mayor’s Task Force on Higher Education John Heaton, the Carlsbad community has reported various issues they feel could be resolved if they were to gain independence from the NMSU system.

On Jan. 19, both the Carlsbad Municipal School Board and the City of Carlsbad unanimously approved resolutions in support of this change.

On Jan. 28, Reps. Cathrynn Brown (R-55) and James Townsend (R-54) introduced House Bill 212 and on Feb. 1, Sen. Gay Kernan (R-42) introduced Senate Bill 236. Following the recommendations and findings of Carlsbad community members, both of these bills are intended to convert the existing Carlsbad branch into an independent community college that is free of the NMSU system.

Should either bill survive the current legislative session at the Roundhouse, the Carlsbad branch would convert into an independent college and legal entity on July 1, 2021 known as Southeast New Mexico College and a governing board for the college would be created in November through a local election called by the Carlsbad Municipal School Board.

All functions, personnel, contracts and property from NMSU Carlsbad would be released from the NMSU system and transferred to the Southeast New Mexico College, with the exception of the Carlsbad Environmental Monitoring and Research Center, by April 10, 2022. 

HB 212, “Remake NMSU-Carlsbad as Community College,” passes the House Education Committee

In a 9-4 vote, HB 212 was granted a do-pass recommendation by the House Education Committee on Feb. 24. On Wednesday, the committee heard from 12 people in favor of the bill and six who opposed the bill, including NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu. 

Arvizu said that although he is not entirely opposed to the branch being released from the NMSU system, he feels that NMSU Carlsbad has not fully grasped what it would take to operate independently. He then proposed that a third-party should review the situation to determine what is best for the students, the community and the NMSU system and that he would agree with the conclusion a third-party reviewer would come to.

In a House Education Committee meeting on Monday, Feb. 22, Rep. Brown explained some key components of the bill, citing that the bill would not affect any other school nor would it create a new school.

The new name for the Carlsbad branch “was chosen from by students, staff, faculty members, and community members who participated in a public poll,” according to Rep. Brown. Brown said both the NMSU system and Carlsbad community want this to be a polite and cordial process.  

Heaton, who is also a former state representative for Eddy County, spoke at the Feb. 22 meeting in which he expressed his opinion that the branch is better off as independent. 

“The community’s only interest is to be able to provide more opportunities for our students and be able to control our own destiny without being strangled by [NMSU],” Heaton said.

Heaton also explained that NMSU Carlsbad has the funds to become an independent college with no impact on the state’s budget. NMSU Carlsbad has a 3 mill levy, according to Heaton, and the state only requires independent community colleges to have two. According to Heaton, NMSU Carlsbad receives $1 million from tuition, $4 million from the state, and $12-16 million from the mill levy. 

Heaton also listed three grievances the NMSU Carlsbad has towards the NMSU system and even referred to such as the “step-child” to NMSU, with the three grievances being unable to offer appropriate salaries, increased tuition costs and the price it costs to operate within the NMSU system.

“There are no services that come from NMSU that we don’t pay dearly for,” Heaton said. 

Wendy Austin, deputy city administrator for Carlsbad, also spoke at the Feb. 22 meeting and said the amount NMSU Carlsbad pays for branding and shared services went up over 48% in the last two fiscal years. 

“Frankly, consolidation and centralization of shared services is in the best interest of the main campus. [It] has not only increased our cost but has eliminated jobs in our community, yet increased jobs at the main campus,” Austin said. 

Austin said that she has no bad feelings towards the NMSU main campus, and she said she thinks it is a good school to get an education, but its management is holding the Carlsbad campus back. 

Austin said NMSU Carlsbad has a $36 million dollar reserve that belongs to them, “that year after year isn’t invested back into [the] community and [the] students.” 

SB 236, “Independent Carlsbad Community College,” passes the Senate Education Committee

The identical senate bill was given a do-pass recommendation in a 7-1 vote on Feb. 15 by the Senate Education Committee. The bill is currently sitting with the Senate Finance Committee.

On the morning of Feb. 15, Sen. Kernan spoke to the committee in which she detailed the timeline, concerns and efforts conducted by the task force in Carlsbad.

“Why independence and why now?” Sen. Kernan rhetorically asked the committee. “Complaints about New Mexico State University’s management of the Carlsbad branch are longstanding and pervasive.”

Sen. Kernan explained some of the findings from the Carlsbad Higher Education Task Force, which is made up of 40 current and former students, staff, faculty, public school educators and other community members.

“They met weekly during the fall and winter of 2020 and continue to meet. When members of the task force began sharing their stories, it became clear that many of the problems with NMSU are systemic. The most agreed-to-observation is that the Carlsbad branch is treated more as an afterthought—out of sight, out of mind,” Sen. Kernan said. “There’s consensus that the relationship with NMSU is frayed beyond repair.”

The task force, according to Kernan, found in their studies that research shows that independent colleges perform better than branch colleges and that such New Mexico independent community colleges produce more 2-year graduates than branch campuses.

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