OLYMPIA — A report sent to the Legislature on Wednesday suggests those wanting a four-year college in Snohomish County need to secure a commitment for its eventual launch before deciding where it might land.
Consultant Bill Wilkerson recommended political leaders pass legislation in 2009 “to authorize a new higher education institution in Snohomish County” and then, if successful, determine where it should be built.
Months of fighting on a location have dimmed once-bright hopes for a University of Washington branch campus opening in the county.
Wilkerson spent 10 weeks trying to inspire consensus among leaders of factions battling over sites in Everett and Marysville. He couldn’t end their dispute on soil but did unite them on pursuing a law to ensure the area will get a university some day.
“This was a baby step but it is a positive step,” he said earlier this week. And it would mirror the process the state used in creating UW branch campuses in Tacoma and Bothell and those run by Washington State University, he said.
On Wednesday, the state Higher Education Coordinating Board, which hired Wilkerson in September, voted to forward his findings to legislators without accepting or rejecting his conclusions.
In interviews before the vote, board members Bill Grinstein and Sam Smith each said they recognize the need for more higher-education options in the three-county region but won’t back a promise to put it in Snohomish County until the community is clearly united.
“If the folks there decide specifically what they want and they are willing to get behind it then I think it makes a lot of sense,” Smith said.
The skirmish among lawmakers from Snohomish, Island and Skagit counties on where to plant the UW flag effectively prevented the proposed college from getting started this year.
Gov. Chris Gregoire promised funding to offer classes if, and only if, an agreement on a location was reached.
It wasn’t. Last spring, with lawmakers still stalemated, the Legislature directed the Higher Education Coordinating Board to try to facilitate an agreement.
The board enlisted Wilkerson, a skilled mediator and former state official who negotiated treaties on fishing rights and timber harvests and forest practices. It paid him $30,000 out of a $100,000 budget allocation.
Wilkerson, after meeting with key players in the conflict concluded the Legislature gave the board the “wrong assignment.”
“Despite all the work already done on site alternatives, I believe the first decision that needs to be made is not which is the best site,” he wrote.
“The consensus opinion of community leaders, which I share, is that the Legislature should first authorize a new higher education institution in Snohomish County to provide additional educational opportunities in the region. The exact location would be determined after that decision has been made,” he wrote.
He described support for the college as “overwhelming” and considered the heated “competition” between Everett and Marysville as a positive, not a negative, for the long run.
“It took me one meeting with each community to determine that site competition by the two is only a plus for the state,” he wrote.
“However, if all that the Legislature and Governor see is the site dispute, it will be tough to proceed. Hopefully wide-ranging support for an authorizing bill will show a unified community.”
Smith said such division likely cost the community in the 1980s, when state leaders passed the law establishing five branch campuses.
“There was lots of discussion then on location. Frankly, the train kept moving and all the other campuses got started in 1989,” he said.
“What my concern now is that doesn’t happen again,” he said.
Reporter Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623 or firstname.lastname@example.org.