NWC Board adopts master housing plan

Posted 9/17/20

After some debate, the Northwest College Board of Trustees voted to pass a master housing plan that charts a course for the college’s housing inventory 20 years into the future.

The plan …

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NWC Board adopts master housing plan


After some debate, the Northwest College Board of Trustees voted to pass a master housing plan that charts a course for the college’s housing inventory 20 years into the future.

The plan contains a number of proposals, including a potential sale of Trapper Village West that drew public concern. Multiple board members indicated they could support the divestiture of the housing facilities someday, but Monday’s approval of the plan does not execute any action.

Before the board voted, Trustee John Housel critiqued the document on multiple fronts, including its enrollment projections, cost estimates for repairing Cody Hall and proposed gender-neutral bathrooms.

For instance, the plan’s enrollment projections estimate around 1,200 to 1,400 full-time students. This is considerably down from what Housel said was an unstated goal of 1,800 to 2,000 full-time students.

“Maybe that’s what we have to accept these days, but I’m not ready to accept that,” he said, adding that such a shift in objectives would impact programs, staff, and other buildings.

Citing a graph in the plan showing fall occupancy rates since the late 1980s — which ran cyclically from as low as 61% to as high as 90% in the 2017-2018 school year — Housel suggested more analysis was needed to convince him the lower projections would be the targets to plan around.

He also expressed doubts in the plan’s estimated $10 million cost for renovating Cody Hall, which has been closed since 2017 due to extensive problems with mold and water damage. A plan for a $3 million renovation was mothballed in the face of falling campus housing demand.

Not only is the new estimate significantly higher than the original figures, Housel said that, based on his experience and a recent tour of the hall, “it’s not significant damage.”

The trustee also questioned the wisdom of the plan’s proposed gender-neutral bathroom facilities.

“If you know anything about the Berry Bryant case, you know that’s the absolute wrong thing to do,” Housel said; Bryant was sexually assaulted and murdered by a fellow NWC student in a remote area north of Powell in 1996.

Even though approving the plan takes no action on the items it proposes, Housel said it was a “high order of magnitude” in terms of decision making. He requested the motion to approve the document contain language stressing the vote was to approve a plan and not its execution.

“As sometimes happens on a board where there are successive members, a plan of this nature kind of becomes … set in stone, and it’s very hard to budget from some of the propositions,” Housel explained.

He also proposed that a plan be developed outside of committees with full board involvement and more analysis of the enrollment projections and estimations. Housel also wanted to wait until the end of the pandemic, when the future of the college would be clearer.

“No one really knows what is going to happen,” he said.

Trustee Carolyn Danko countered Housel’s comments, saying there were opportunities for him to share his thoughts in committees and at presentations, and those thoughts would have been welcomed.

Danko also disagreed that gender-neutral bathrooms would present a safety risk as Housel suggested. She pointed out that these kinds of bathroom arrangements are becoming common in modern dormitories, and they do offer plenty of privacy.

“They are shut. They are locked. No one can see in. Surely you can wash your own hands next to a guy or a girl,” Danko said, adding that when she was in college, students often had a common “gang shower,” which was far less private.

Danko also objected to Housel’s request to delay passing the plan, citing maintenance expenses the college would need to cover while a new plan was developed.

Trustee Bob Newsome was also concerned with the ongoing costs; with occupancy rates so low, especially at Trapper Village West, housing revenues at the college aren’t covering the costs.

“It’s been pointed out to me this is an educational institution, not a business … My response is, well, that’s true, because they’re doing a really bad job of managing property,” Newsome said.

The trustee said he wouldn’t be opposed to selling Trapper Village West, if the money it raised could be put to good use toward other housing; he also concurred the plan may have exaggerated the extent of the damage to Cody Hall.

“It might be worth getting a second opinion,” Newsome said, as he believes it’s cheaper to renovate and repair than build a whole new dorm.

Trustee Mark Wurzel also did not support waiting on the plan until after the pandemic is over. He pointed out there are emerging reports of people becoming reinfected and uncertainty about when a vaccine would be available, meaning the disease could be with us for some time.

Wurzel said the pandemic has ushered in an era of online learning and proved its efficacy. This means, even if the college improves its enrollment rates, which projections do not align with, they may not see a corresponding rise in campus housing demand.

“This can be done without ever going to college,” he said.

Wurzel also suggested that, should the college proceed with selling Trapper Village West, it could potentially negotiate with the buyers to retain portions for faculty or other housing needs.

Trustee Luke Anderson argued that the college would have “hundreds” of decisions to make for its housing needs, and the plan would allow it to at the very least begin moving toward some kind of decision making process.

“I think this is a good step toward right-sizing our student housing,” Anderson said.

While saying he understood Housel’s concerns about beholding future boards to the plan, by not having some direction, Anderson said trustees were impacting future boards with a lack of planning on major decisions.

After this discussion, Board President Dusty Spomer chimed in, suggesting the motion be amended to say the plan is only guidance, restricting its approval to only the directional nature of the document. The motion would then state that divestment, expenditure, or demolition require board approval. It would be reviewed every couple years, and specific deviations would be voted on by future boards.

Spomer also stressed that the approval of the plan did not demolish Trapper Village West. He said it would be better to have the private sector manage the property, if the demand is there, which would free up NWC’s administration to focus on its core mission.

“We don’t have to be in the housing business. We need to be in the education business,” he said.

Wurzel, who made the original motion, agreed to amend it the way Spomer proposed. Anderson seconded the motion, and it passed, with Housel voting against adoption of the plan.

The plan, which the college contracted for $19,800, was introduced in February and immediately drew public concerns, mostly over the sale of Trapper Village West. The board of trustees considered passing the plan at its March meeting, but Housel pointed out the plan was developed primarily in committees without public input. He suggested and the board agreed to table the plan until the community was given a forum to voice its thoughts.

Shortly after the March meeting, the college campus was closed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the forum wasn’t held until Sept. 1.