Board halts community college initiative locally

LEWISTOWN – The local initiative to bring a community college to Mifflin County again has hit a bump in the road.

During an August meeting of the Pennsylvania Highlands Community College Board of Trustees, the board decided against moving forward with a Lewistown branch campus at this time.

The decision comes less than a year after PHCC President Walter Asonevich met with local stakeholders and community representatives to present the school’s plan to move forward with an academic center in Lewistown.

At that time, Asonevich said a feasibility and market study illustrated that Mifflin County could support a PHCC academic center, and that the opportunity to provide Juniata Valley residents with access to higher education could come as early as fall of 2013.

The board’s decision to curtail the project was based on a lack of financial and human resources, he said.

“We had to make cuts in personnel and equipment in building our budget for the current fiscal year, and we still did not get the numbers balanced,” Asonevich explained in an email to The Sentinel. “We can’t run a deficit on our main campus and consider opening new academic centers that will likely run in the red for a number of years before they can stand on their own financially.”

Despite the setback, John Czerniakowski, site coordinator for the local community college initiative, remains confident that the possibility for bringing higher education to Mifflin County still exists.

“It’s going to come down to funding,” he said.

Czerniakowski said those involved with the initiative have been meeting with state Reps. Mike Fleck, Kerry Benninghoff and Adam Harris to encourage support for the project.

“We’re trying to be positive and optimistic,” he said. “(PHCC) has left the door open to us to move ahead if we secure the funding we need.”

But if the project is going to move ahead, it needs to happen soon. Czerniakowski said space has been secured for three classrooms and a reception area at the CareerLink. Though local agencies have been supportive of the effort, he said those spaces may not be available forever.

Czerniakowski estimated that the county needs $400,000 in start-up funds to move forward.

“A community college would just offer a number of people a real good, affordable option,” he said, including the added benefits of workforce development for the community and programs to offer high school students early college credit.

Czerniakowski said he encourages the community to contact state representatives and ask them to support the effort to bring higher education to Mifflin County.

“The timing is right for us,” he said.