JM 1-31 column

Published 12:00 am Friday, May 14, 2004

I had never felt so stupid and learned so much at the same time. It happened about five years ago at a former job when an old boss taught me one of the best management lessons I’ve ever learned.

As the editor of another newspaper, there was a problem in my newsroom. Reporters wouldn’t think on their own and produce their own stories. The photographer didn’t quite understand the meaning of “in focus.” The sports editor felt one good story a day made for a good section.

Finally, cartoon-like smoke erupted from my ears and I stomped up to my boss’s office to explain the predicament.

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“Jonathan, get out of that chair and leave my office,” my boss said.

Didn’t seem like a very kind thing to say at the time, considering the ear smoke and all. But what he said next has stuck with me ever since.

“You have a problem in your newsroom,” he confirmed. “When you’ve come up with a solution, come back and we’ll talk. I’ll tell you if it’s the wrong solution.”

Ever since that day, there have been few times when I’ve talked about a problem without offering some sort of solution in the next sentence. Today, I can honestly tell you about a problem without having one idea about the solution.

On Nov. 6, 2003, The Demopolis Times converted from a twice-weekly newspaper to a 5-day daily. Our reason was simple: In order for our community to grow, we have to tell our story to an entire region. And what resulted was a slogan that verified our mission: “Making Regionalism a Reality.” The region would include Marengo, Perry, Hale, Greene and Sumter counties.

Numerous public officials, from Demopolis and the entire state, supported the decision, including U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions.

“…The Black Belt has so much potential, and The Times’ decision to expand its coverage underscores the importance of West Alabama working together as a region,” Sessions said in October 2003.

Well folks, I believe our region faces a growing issue that has the ability to divide our region for decades to come.

On Friday, our newspaper reported about some of the conflicts emerging in the higher education center scheduled to open in August of this year. Demopolis received $1.25 million from the federal government to help construct the center, and much of the reason we received that grant was the collaborative effort of Alabama Southern Community College, the University of West Alabama and the University of Alabama.

It literally took nothing for those three institutions to write letters of recommendation for the Demopolis higher education center. UWA President Dr. Richard Holland wrote two paragraphs in his letter. Former UA Provost Nancy Barrett typed three paragraphs.

Dr. John Johnson, on the other hand, sent a two-page letter detailing why Alabama Southern supported the construction of a Demopolis facility.

The money was awarded to Demopolis — thanks in large part to those letters — but a funny thing happened on the way to the bank. Actually, it’s not funny.

According to Johnson, the Demopolis higher education center will be used for a number of purposes. Those wanting work-force training will have that option. Others who want to take all their two-year core classes (including English, math and science) will have that option.

Holland had a different idea about the Demopolis facility. In general, he felt the center would be used to offer distance learning, vocational classes and maybe a few graduate courses — which UWA already offers at Demopolis High School.

To strain matters even more, Alabama Southern has begun the process of interviewing teachers for some of the core classes taught at every state university.

Most of you probably understand where this miscommunication is leading. If not, here it goes.

If Demopolis and this region are to grow, the counties of Marengo, Hale, Greene, Sumter and Perry must work together.

This region is blessed with a (still accredited) four-year university in Sumter County. If current plans continue, Marengo County will build what amounts to a community college that will compete with our four-year university. And we’re not talking about an indirect competition. We’re talking about direct competition.

According to Richard Hester, director of admissions for UWA, Marengo County currently has more than 200 students enrolled in undergraduate classes at the Livingston school. Hale County has another 45 or so. All told, Marengo and Hale send about 250 undergrad students to UWA each year.

Let’s take that another step. If a Demopolis higher education center actually became a community college, and the students from Marengo and Hale County decided to spend their first two years in Demopolis, as opposed to Livingston, do you have any idea what that would do to UWA?

According to Hester, UWA has about 1,500 undergrad students this year. A full-time student who takes 15 hours a semester pays about $1,850 in tuition.

You see where this is going. UWA stands to lose nearly $465,000 a semester in tuition if all the undergrads in Marengo and Hale attended class at the Demopolis facility. Annually, you’re approaching the Mendoza mark of $1 million in lost tuition.

The other argument, of course, is that a community college in Demopolis would create quite the economic boon. Imagine 250 cars parked around the Demopolis center each day. Imagine how many of those students would eat lunch, pay sales taxes (let’s not start on that one) and buy gasoline.

A community college surely would benefit Demopolis, but would it benefit our region?

There’s the problem without the solution. Some leaders need to start talking. Soon.