The Utah House of Representatives voted in favor of a bill to merge the Southeast Applied Technology Center with the College of Eastern Utah.
Sponsored by Rep. Ron Bigelow of West Valley City, the first substitute for House Bill 371 acts on a recommendation from the Utah Board of Regents to merge the two educational entities.
"I don't know how many of you have been down to Price or know the area. It's rural Utah. It's one of the few areas of the state that has actually lost population," pointed out Bigelow to the state lawmakers.
"We have an interesting situation in Carbon County," continued Bigelow. "By combining, we achieve some efficiencies. It is expected and, in fact, will be required that CEU still continue to provide applied technology education. That mission will not be diminished. But we do believe that because of the unique circumstances in this sector of the state and in effort to be efficient with state funds and still meet the needs of students, we came up with the recommendation to combine those two."
The bill was originally defeated in a Feb. 21 vote on the Utah House floor with 32 in favor, 40 opposed and three absent. However, the bill was brought back to the floor for consideration and passed with 46 in favor, 23 opposed and six absent.
Despite opposition in the Utah House, the bill passed after reconsideration. The proposal now leaves the House and heads to the Utah Senate for debate.
SEATC currently serves the technology education needs for four counties in southeastern Utah - Carbon, Emery, Grand and San Juan.
CEU serves a similar region with campuses in Carbon and San Juan counties. Remote education sites connect CEU with high schools across the entire four-county region.
While CEU's administration has generally supported the merger, board members for SEATC's parents organization, the Utah College of Applied Technology, have spoken against it.
And just as there are differences among educators regarding the merger, the Utah Legislature was also divided on its vote.
Rep. Brad King of Price is a vice president at CEU and serves as state representative for portions of Carbon, Emery, Grand, Wayne and Garfield counties as well as all of San Juan County.
King voted in favor of the bill both times the proposal was on the Utah House floor.
However, other representatives who serve portions of the state served by SEATC and CEU were mixed in their voting.
Rep. Kay McIff of Richfield represents portions of Emery, Sevier and Sanpete counties and voted in favor of the bill both times it was on the House floor. He said the bill was socially and economically sound.
McIff addressed the mind set among many in the education sector that technology education carries a secondary status.
"To put these young people in the same hallways and afford them the same worth enhances not only economics, but it enhances the overall image of all forms of education including technological education," said the representative.
McIff added that the merger may serve to show that technology education is just as important as traditional forms of higher education.
Rep. John Mathis of Vernal covers most of Uintah County and a large portion of Grand County. Mathis initially voted against the bill. But he changed his mind when the proposal was brought back for a vote later in the day and supported the measure.
And Rep. Patrick Painter of Nephi, who represents western portions of Carbon, including Helper, and portions of Utah, Sanpete and Juab counties, first voted for the merger. But Painter changed his mind and voted against the proposal later in the day.
The bill's sponsor encouraged legislators to focus on what the bill actually accomplishes and not future similar decisions. Specifically, he noted that the bill does not address a possible merger now in the study phase regarding Salt Lake Community College and the Salt Lake/Tooele Applied Technology College.
Bigelow explained that his intention is not to dismantle UCAT and added that he backed the creation of UCAT in 2001, even sponsoring the bill that created it.
"There has been some concern that perhaps UCAT will be dismantled by virtue of this bill," he explained. "While I am in the legislature, I hope that never happens and I will do all in my power to prevent it."
He noted that applied technology is critical for many high school graduates who do not plan on entering the university or college setting but who still want training in their career field.
However, other legislators questioned whether the merger was the right direction for post-high school education in Utah. Rep. Douglas Aagard of Kaysville called the measure a slippery slope toward the complete dissolution of technology training in the state.
"These need to remain distinct," he said. "They need to be able to operate in their own separate missions."
Rep. Steven Mascaro of West Jordan wondered if the merger was in some way back stepping from the creation of UCAT.
"Here we are five years later finding ourselves merging one of the campuses," he said. He recognized that the merger would allow the state to more efficiently provide technology training. He questioned whether similar savings could be experienced by merging other institutions.
"I'm not sure I'm against merging more of these campuses," said Mascaro, pointing to tens of millions of tax dollars spent on UCAT and applied technology centers across the state.
Rep. Melvin Brown of Coalville asked whether the bill removed the administration for technological training in southeastern Utah from the purview of the UCAT board and placed it under the board of regents.
Bigelow said that because the function of SEATC would be transferred to CEU, the oversight of those functions would similarly be transferred to the board of regents.
However, the UCAT board falls under the board of regents and Bigelow explained that the bill requires CEU to make annual reports to the UCAT board regarding the college's performance in technology training and the placement of individuals in related careers. The bill also requires the creation of an advisory board at CEU to oversee the programs. The board would be comprised of six members of the business community and representatives from CEU and Carbon, Emery, Grand and San Juan school districts.
Still, lawmakers expressed concern over the effect of the bill on UCAT.
"I'm very concerned that as we merge these two together that we lose the autonomy at the UCAT board," said Rep. Michael Noel of Kanab. "We lose the mission. And we lose the ability to provide the jobs that we need right now to those individuals that would never choose a higher education."
Noel said he feared that technology education get lost in the process and laborers seeking additional training may be forced into an academic setting.