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Ferrum College president remains hopeful Virginia will consider lab school application

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash.com.

Ferrum College joins more than a dozen institutions that are not being considered, including Eastern Shore Community College and Hampton University.

This story was reported and written by our media partner the Virginia Mercury.

Ferrum College’s hopes for creating a specialized laboratory school have ended after months of discussions with state leaders, but the college’s president is still holding out for a different outcome.

According to documents from the Virginia Department of Education, the private institution in Southwest Virginia joins more than a dozen institutions that are not being considered, some of which have withdrawn their applications including Eastern Shore Community College, Southside Virginia Community College, Hampton University and the University of Lynchburg.

Ferrum College President Mirta Martin blamed the state for changes during the review process after it received a nearly $200,000 lab school planning grant.

Martin said she received a call from Secretary of Education Aimee Guidera last month to break the news.

“At that point, I told her very candidly, I’m not going to go down silently into the night because this is not a political issue; this is doing the right thing for some of the most underserved populations in Virginia,” Martin said in an interview last month with the Mercury.

According to the Virginia Department of Education, Ferrum received additional time to respond to questions before ultimately having its application axed by the department from consideration for the College Partnership Laboratory School committee.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration has actively sought to establish laboratory schools, much like charter schools, to offer another layer of educational choices with specialized instruction. But opponents, including Democrats, say the schools take away from public school funding.

As part of the approval process, which involves the Department of Education reviewing elements such as curriculum details and budget assumptions, applicants are welcome to withdraw their applications at any time and resubmit them at a later time.

Christian Martinez, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said Guidera and the staff at the Virginia Department of Education have “openly communicated” that the new budget language reduces the available funding for lab school operations, which will impact the evaluation of some proposals.

Private institutions, including Ferrum, faced another challenge during the process when the governor and lawmakers agreed to a budget last month requiring them to submit their applications along with a four-year public institution of higher education to handle the financial and administrative duties for each lab school and enact an annual reporting requirement related to financial sustainability.

“As Virginia continues to emerge as a national leader in lab school development, Governor Youngkin will focus on restoring excellence in education by creating innovative pathways for students to explore potential careers and better prepare for their future in the commonwealth,” said Martinez.

Ferrum’s view of the process

Ferrum officials pointed to the ongoing rule changes as to why its application failed to reach the application committee for review.

The college requested $10.6 million for the initial four years, which is more than schools like James Madison University with a larger enrollment size requested. JMU asked for $7 million.

Martin said the requested funding is to cover a larger territory compared to other institutions.

According to published documents that were later removed from the education department’s website, the agency first received Ferrum College’s Academy for Opportunity and Innovation application on Feb. 1. The proposed academy would have focused on providing high school students interested in employment in public service and health-related fields.

Officials also said many of the committee’s questions had already been answered or included in the application.

According to college officials, the department asked Ferrum to expand the application from Franklin County High School to 12 school divisions after submitting the first version of its application. Ferrum officials said they made the changes despite the potential commuting challenges in the Southwest.

Officials also had another challenge when state lawmakers added language into the two-year budget requiring private institutions to partner with public institutions on lab school applications.

“If the rules had been consistent from the beginning of the process, we would have had a fiscal partner out from day one, but that was introduced after we were already waiting in line to get in front of the standing committee,” said Jason Powell, associate vice president of academic affairs and chief innovation and research officer at Ferrum College.

According to Powell, the administrative costs for those grants are likely to increase, even double, after the budget decision.

Despite the projected costs, Martin said Ferrum would be willing to find a four-year public institution partner.

“We were never afforded that opportunity, but if afforded the opportunity, we will comply,” Martin said. “We will find a fiscal agent that will partner with us … to be able to provide this critical education to this underserved population.”

Lab schools update

On May 21, following an hour-long closed session with its legal team, the Board of Education approved two lab school applications: one from Old Dominion University to create a school in Suffolk, the other from George Mason University to create a school in Frederick.

“These two lab schools will bring valuable STEM education to the Hampton Roads and Shenandoah Valley communities and bring our total to 14 across the commonwealth,” said Youngkin in a May 22 statement. Lab schools have been a priority education issue for Youngkin’s administration and a sticking point of debate among Democratic legislators.

In partnership with higher education institutions, creating the state-approved curriculum, lab schools offer students tuition-free instruction for careers in computer science and technology. Lab school admission is based on a lottery system.

Five schools that submitted successful lab school applications — Emory & Henry and Roanoke Colleges, and Mountain Gateway, Paul D. Camp and Germanna Community Colleges — will be required to resubmit them after language in the recently passed state budget emphasized that state code does not allow lab school funding to go to private or two-year colleges, a position Democrats have long held.

Todd Reid, a spokesman with the VDOE, said it would not be able to provide an update on the status of the applications submitted by private institutions.

The Youngkin administration, with support from the attorney’s general office, previously said that state law does not prohibit the committee from accepting applications from all institutions.

No new funding for lab schools was included in the two-year budget, after the governor proposed $60 million for them which lawmakers declined to add to the spending plan.

According to the committee’s June documents, the state’s current lab school fund balance is $9,647,232. Norfolk State University, and prospective partners Old Dominion and Eastern Shore Community College, are expected to meet with the lab school committee on June 10.

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