GOP lawmakers approve plan to merge UW branch campus in West Bend with tech college

Idea to consolidate campuses comes from Washington County taskforce addressing steep enrollment declines

Buildings flank the Wisconsin State Capitol
Wisconsin State Capitol. Angela Major/WPR

Another two-year University of Wisconsin System campus would end instruction under a plan approved by the GOP-led Joint Finance Committee. If the move survives a potential veto by the governor, UW-Milwaukee Washington County would merge with Moraine Park Technical College.

A UW-Washington County Transition plan was included in a miscellaneous state budget motion approved by the Joint Finance Committee Thursday. It would provide around $3.4 million to the UW System, upon request, “for the transition of UW-Washington County from a UW-Milwaukee branch campus to a joint Moraine Park Technical College/Washington County operation pursuant to a plan submitted by UW System.”

It’s unclear what the money would be used for based on the motion, but according to Washington County, the annual budget for the branch campus is around $3 million.

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Discussions about merging the two-year Washington County campus with Moraine Park Technical College have been ongoing. But they’ve been driven by a task force created by the Washington County Executive’s office, not the UW System. Representatives from UW-Milwaukee and Moraine Park have been involved but not as voting members of the task force.

A statement from UW System communications staff said they did not request the Joint Finance Committee vote on the merger plans, “and would want to learn more about the intent and process.”

“We do not have a timeline and there are too many unknowns at this time for us to speak to the motion,” the statement said.

A statement from UW-Milwaukee noted it didn’t ask for the JFC budget motion, either.

“We are carefully following the motion’s progress as the budget process continues, and we’ll update the UWM community as we know more about how it could impact our Washington County campus,” the statement said.

The university created a UWM Washington County Work Group this spring in response to news of the county’s proposal to merge the branch campus with the technical college. Those meetings are ongoing and the group is set to make its recommendations to Chancellor Mark Mone by Sept. 1.

A report, issued by the Washington County task force noted a 2018 consolidation of the UW’s two-year and four-year campuses “has not worked well” and accelerated enrollment declines. Last fall there were 332 students enrolled at UW-Milwaukee Washington County. In 2010, there were 1,117 students enrolled.

The report notes the technical college has also seen enrollment declines “but remains a viable institution” thanks to a strong funding base from tuition and property taxes.

Washington County Executive Josh Schoemann told WPR he’s grateful the Legislature is giving the county, UW-Milwaukee, Moraine Park Technical College and the state systems overseeing those schools a chance to come up with a type of community college pilot program.

“I think it’s reflective of an appetite amongst those in the Capitol for just seeking out a solution,” Schoemann said. “It doesn’t take a lot of research to find places like Cardinal Stritch (University) or Silver Lake College (Holy Family College) that kind of abruptly closed.”

Schoemann said declining college enrollments coupled with expected declines in the number of high school graduates in Wisconsin means “we’ve got to do this differently.”

Fall classes at the UW’s Washington County campus and Moraine Park will go on as they have for decades, Schoemann said. He said he hopes discussions about how to merge the schools will happen through the end of the year.

“If it takes a little longer, it takes a little longer,” Schoemann said. “We’re creating something new here. We don’t want to rush it, but we do want to be timely and we have this biennium to get it done.”

Moraine Park Technical College President Bonnie Baerwald has been cool to the idea of the proposed merger. In April, when the Washington County task force released its recommendations for the college to absorb UW-Milwaukee’s branch campus, Baerwald said she welcomed opportunities to work more closely with four-year UW schools but did not “see a need to formally merge anything.”

In an emailed statement Monday, Baerwald said MPTC will “wait until Governor Evers makes his final decisions on the budget before beginning any conversations with UW-Milwaukee or Washington County.”

“We will follow the lead of the UW and Washington County leadership on what they envision as a ‘joint operation,’ and if it fits into our mission and budget, we will do what we can to ensure learners in the greater Washington County area have access to affordable higher education opportunities for various careers or transfer degrees,” Baerwald said.

A spokesperson for Evers did not respond to a WPR email asking if Evers supports the proposal or might consider overturning the JFC motion with a line-item veto.

As discussions about the future of the UW-Milwaukee Washington County campus continue, UW-Platteville at Richland is ending classroom instruction and there are no immediate plans for what to do with the Richland County-owned campus.

The end of classes in Richland Center was ordered by UW System President Jay Rothman after enrollment fell to around 60 students in fall of 2022. Community meetings were organized by residents wanting to save the campus long known as UW-Richland.

During one meeting in January, residents asked Joint Finance Committee Co-Chair Sen. Howard Marklein, R-Spring Green, and JFC member Rep. Tony Kurtz, R-Wonewoc, to include $4 million in the state budget for a full-time recruiter at the Richland campus in hopes of boosting enrollment. At the time, Kurtz said he would try but “it would be a fruitless effort, because we would lose.”