Kirk Smith on Monday cast the lone vote against a program which offers two years of tuition-free community college to qualifying students in Lee, Harnett and Chatham counties.
The Lee County Board of Commissioners on Monday was considering a memorandum of understanding regarding funding for the Lee County Promise, which offers qualifying students two-year scholarships to Central Carolina Community College. Commissioners in Harnett and Chatham counties both approved the same MOU unanimously.
Smith, a Republican elected in 2018, said his experience as an Army recruiter led him to the conclusion that “three quarters of the students that start out going to college, intending to go to college, don’t complete it,” and that “we really don’t have the ability to grant scholarships.”
Smith said he’d done an “online survey” of voters to gauge support for or opposition to the measure, which appears to have been an unscientific Facebook post which claimed that the MOU called for spending $125,000 this year and $250,000 “every year after.”
While the MOU does contain those numbers, they are caps – the bill for the 50-some students currently enrolled in the Lee County Promise is around $27,000. Additionally, a substantial private donation funneled through the CCCC Foundation, as well as any other scholarships and grants available to students further offset the cost to the county.
Smith’s fellow Republican Commissioner Andre Knecht appeared to correct Smith’s number on the Facebook post in question.
“Please remember these totals are maximus and may be less. Just FYI,” Knecht wrote. Knecht and Republican Arianna Del Palazzo joined the board’s Democrats in voting for the measure Monday night.
Much of the remaining commentary on the issue – both on Smith’s Facebook post, and at Monday’s meeting – was about whether private and home schooled students would be eligible for the scholarships. A number of speakers Monday night asked the county to amend the MOU to clarify that those students would qualify, and the commissioners granted those requests.
Because the motion at Monday’s meeting was to “amend and approve” the MOU, Smith’s vote means he not only voted against the program, but also against eligibility for private and home schooled students.
Additionally, CCCC President Bud Marchant spoke, noting that it was never the school’s intent to not offer the same scholarship opportunity to private and home schools, and also stressing that the Lee County Promise is a pilot program that will run for five years, after which the school can assess data and determine whether it has been a success.
“The college is not asking for a blank forever check,” he said. “This is a pilot program that will go on for five years.”
The Lee County Promise program was founded in 2018 and hailed as an innovative tool for workforce and economic development.
“A skilled and productive workforce is the engine of economic prosperity, particularly in a high-growth region like Lee County,” Marchant said in a 2018 press release. “Lee County Promise offers the opportunity for our citizens to invest in the community in one of the most substantive and meaningful ways – by giving our local high school graduates a debt-free pathway to college credentials leading to careers in high-demand fields.”