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Heartland Board Candidates Discuss Pandemic, Enrollment, Equity In Forum

Candidates for the Heartland Community College board of trustees participated in an election forum Thursday night hosted by WGLT.

The pandemic and issues surrounding social equity loomed large during a Thursday night forum attended by candidates for the Heartland Community College board of trustees.

During the virtual event hosted by WGLT, board hopefuls mapped their visions for steering the college into the future.  

Five candidates are competing for two six-year terms: Joshua Crockett, Jodie Slothower, Catrina Parker, Cynthia Pulley, and incumbent Rebecca Ropp. 

Two candidates are competing for a two-year seat: Cecelia Long and incumbent Jim Drew are running to complete the term of Gregg Chadwick, who died in September. Drew was appointed to fill the vacancy until the spring election. 

The election is April 6.

Moderator and WGLT News Director Charlie Schlenker asked the candidates how they would address falling enrollment rates. Heartland has seen steep declines during the pandemic -- especially among minority students. 

The candidates largely agreed  there was a need for more outreach to different segments of the community. 

Both Drew and Pulley highlighted the importance of building the college’s relationship with local high schools to increase the number of dual-credit students. Through the dual-credit program, students can earn college credit while still in high school.

“That pipeline from the high school to Heartland Community College (HCC) is very important,” said Pulley, an assistant professor at Illinois State University.

Long, who works in social services, said there is a need to remove barriers that prevent people from enrolling in school. She cited housing insecurity and a lack of access to necessities like WiFi as “obstacles” to education. Long said HCC should work with local community groups like Black Lives Matter and PATH to address the needs of vulnerable students. 

Ropp, who currently serves on the board, and Crockett, a former student trustee, pointed to the work currently underway by the college’s Strategic Enrollment Initiative. 

On the question of how to keep enrollment affordable when there is chronic underfunding from state and federal governments, several candidates touted the potential of scholarships, financial aid, and alternative revenue streams. 

Slothower, a professor who’s held positions at HCC, ISU, and Kansas State University, said the state is supposed to contribute about 30% of the HCC budget, but ends up pitching in only about 7-9%. 

Slothower said she was encouraged by the work of the HCC Foundation that provides scholarships and emergency aid to student, adding, “I know they can do more.”

Long said she worked with the college during the pandemic to create an emergency fund for students who’d lost jobs. The program was quickly overwhelmed by requests for support and students were turned away, she said, pointing to a need for HCC to develop better strategies to protect vulnerable students.

Drew, a small business owner who also works for the Illinois Farm Bureau, said HCC does an “excellent job” in providing an affordable education. For those needing assistance, Drew also pointed to the HCC Foundation.

“The money’s in there for scholarships,” he said. 

Asked about budget philosophies, the candidates mostly agreed a balanced budget is the best option. But many acknowledged navigating the pandemic created the need for exceptions. 

Crockett said though deficit spending should never be considered normal, we aren’t living in normal times. The loss of revenue due to lower enrollment coupled with the expense of online learning programs has pushed HCC into deficient spending, he said, adding the budget can be brought back into balance by closing gaps in enrollment.

Parker agreed the conditions created by the pandemic could result in budgetary exceptions, saying the college may need to run a temporary deficit to help vulnerable students. 

Parker said when she enrolled at Heartland in 2012 as a single mother, it was one of the most difficult times in her life. She went on to graduate from ISU and then received a master's degree in public service management from DePaul University. Parker said that at a time in her life when others told her no, Heartland always told her yes. But the college can still do more to reach out to underprivileged potential students, she said. 

The candidates were generally united in their appreciation for the familial atmosphere of HCC, as well as the dedication of the faculty and staff. 

Drew, Slothower, and Crockett drew special attention to the college’s focus on job training that Slothower said was especially important during the pandemic. 

Crockett lauded HCC’s role in training students for the jobs of tomorrow. A forthcoming program in high voltage battery technology, he said, will allow HCC to “act as funnel for workers directly into Rivian.”

Ropp said she’d like HCC to take full advantage of McLean County’s position in agriculture, noting the county is home to some of the richest farmland in the country. 

“I think it’s really, really an opportunity for the college to get the agricultural program stood up and working towards the future,” she said. 

To the question of what role HCC can play in combating racism and social inequity in the community, Ropp recalled the words of her father, who told her that education is the one thing that can never be taken from a person. 

Ropp said community colleges, including HCC, are in position to combat inequities by providing underserved communities with educational opportunities. 

Parker said there was a need in schools for education about the less overt aspects of racism, like microaggressions. She also said it’s critical that in trying to combat social injustices, institutions should “include the people you want to help.” 

Pulley agreed that educating people on things like microaggression could be “eye opening,” and suggested  HCC can work to implement training and workshops in the local business community. 

Crockett and Slothower pointed to the need for continued community engagement and outreach, including civic involvement and dialogue. 

Long described community college as a “doorway to stop the cycle of generational poverty.” As a trustee, Long said she would advocate for the needs of people who are often ignored. She said she’d like to see HCC approve a racial impact and underrepresented group impact statement to help guide how the college spends its money.

Drew said HCC’s role in the community is working with businesses to understand their needs and then shaping course offerings around those needs. 

“I think that benefits everyone,” he said. “We have to make sure that we exhibit opportunities for all students.”

You can listen to the forum during a special rebroadcast at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 23, on 89.1 FM or streaming at WGLT.org.

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Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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