Oregon’s Higher Education Coordinating Commission (HECC) rejected a petition Thursday to change the boundaries of Central Oregon Community College (COCC).

The petition came from residents of northern Lake County, often referred to as North Lake, who say they’re not being served by COCC.

Like most Oregonians, North Lake residents pay taxes for one of the state’s 17 community colleges. In North Lake, that school is COCC.

Last year, residents signed a petition asking to be removed from COCC’s boundary. HECC commissioners gave COCC about six months to improve the services it offers to North Lake students.

In a report, COCC says it serves North Lake with high school visits, scholarships and online classes.

North Lake students also receive services from Klamath Community College (KCC), including a distance learning program. Instead of being taxed, supporters of the petition to leave COCC would rather pay to contract services from KCC.

HECC commissioners had two options: reject North Lake’s petition or change COCC’s boundary.

According to the HECC, the part of COCC’s boundary in Lake County generated $117,005 in tax revenue for the college in 2018. If North Lake withdrew from the boundary, COCC — and the state — would lose that funding.

It’s the first time the commission has taken up a petition like this.

In a memo asking HECC commissioners to reject the petition, Cam Preus of the Oregon Community College Association (OCCA) said removing the area from the COCC boundary means reducing college access in a rural area. HECC staffers agreed with OCCA, suggesting staff work on shifting North Lake to KCC territory instead.

Commissioner Terry Cross said he was disappointed with COCC’s services to North Lake. He said the decision to remove or keep the North Lake area within the boundary is a matter of what’s best for the rural community.

“Voting against the petition to me seems to send a message that it’s OK to neglect a remote geographic area, and that’s really hard to swallow,” Cross said.

But Cross and four other commissioners voted to reject the petition anyway and approved a staff recommendation to pursue a North Lake transition in the next academic year.

Commissioners Sandy Rowe and Duncan Wyse voted no. During the discussion, Wyse expressed interest in looking into the state community college system in general to make sure rural communities are adequately served.

“How do we provide services to remote communities recognizing that it’s not going to be one institution in the future, it’s going to be a lot of institutions working with you to get this done?” Wyse said. “Withdrawing I don’t think is the answer — the answer is figuring out what [North Lake residents] need.”

HECC staff member Patrick Crane said he’s heard from two other areas with community college boundary issues.

Though no one from KCC was present at the HECC meeting, Crane said the college president has had conversations with the board about recruiting an at-large board member from Lake County.

“They are open and willing to make this transition,” Crane said.

Right before the commission’s vote, North Lake petitioner Alan Parks had one last comment for the HECC.

“If we’re going to remain in a taxing district, I would like to be affiliated with Klamath Community College because they have ag programs,” Parks said. “They have a far better outreach to our community and our county.”