‘Early college’ could become reality for Ashe students

WEST JEFFERSON-Passage of the Connect N.C. Bond last week has moved Wilkes Community College in prime position to expand the programs and services offered at its West Jefferson satellite campus, said college officials Tuesday.

With the bond’s overwhelming approval comes with it the opportunity to also better prepare Ashe County High School students for advanced education as school administrators and WCC officials are now considering offering an early college program in conjunction with the grade school curriculum.

This would allow Ashe High students to finish within four to five years with both a high school diploma and two-year degree degree, if those plans come to fruition. Officials have added a caveat that this discussion is still preliminary.

While WCC has been eyeing an expanded or renovated Ashe campus for some time, college officials only recently saw their vision clear longstanding obstacles.

One of those looming hindrances was finding funding to help move the project forward.

Earlier this month, the Ashe County Board of Commissioners agreed to voted to contribute up to $6 million in matching funds for the project in addition to the $4 million that is pledged by WCC.

College President Jeff Cox also said WCC is looking at securing $1 million in private fundraising plus utilizing the endowment corporation as a source of financing.

“The campus is bursting at the seams,” said Cox of the need for the expansion.”There’s more demand out there and we can’t fill it in our current facility.

As it stands now, many WCC’s Ashe County student population must travel to Wilkesboro to attend class for many advanced programs not offered in West Jefferson.

Beyond that, an expansion of the college could be a driving force for economic development in the community for decades to come, said Cox.

“I believe with all my heart that as the community here continues to grow and recover from the recession, I think the

community college will be the center of all that,” said Cox. “Future companies will know they will have a strong partner to meet the needs of the 21st century.”

One of those companies that have most recently benefited from that partnership with WCC is G.E. Aviation. Through a customized training program, WCC was able to help G.E. fill its job quota, said Cox.

“That shined a spotlight on this community and college,” said Cox.

What remains to be seen is where the college will be located.

There has been some talk of expanding the current facility, but lack of additional space and aging infrastructure has WCC officials concerned about the feasibility of that option.

Previously, officials have also spoken about constructing a facility on U.S. 221, but nothing concrete has been noted.

Cox said the college is also “open and receptive” to coexisting at a site shared with a new middle school, which has also been labeled as a top priority by county commissioners.

This planning for new infrastructure comes at a fortuitous and optimistic time for county officials, as the slate is about to be cleared on several long-standing debt services.

Remaining on the county’s balance is annual payments of $760,000 for the high school and $730,000 on Westwood, as well as $409,000 on the library, according to county finance records.

Debt service on the high school ends this year and in 2017-18 at Westwood. County officials said the library should be paid off by 2019.

But the elimination of certain debts isn’t the only increase in funding the county will be enjoying.

Two years ago, citizens voted to increase the county sales tax by one quarter of 1 percent.

As a result, Ashe received roughly $540,000 a year with nearly all of that is going to Ashe Memorial Hospital annually.

The original agreement slated a three-year agreement with the next fiscal year being the last installment.

Reach Jesse Campbell at 336-846-7164.

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