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Battling the board: Little Rock firm fighting state agency over issue of licensing.

The state Board of Private Career Education isn't one of Arkansas' better-known agencies.

It isn't one of the largest, either. It has seven members.

Its staff consists of a director, two full-time staffers and a student intern.

The board, however, has a large task. It is charged with keeping private education centers -- nursing academies, flight schools, modeling institutes and the like -- within the boundaries of state law.

Jim Taylor thinks the board is overstepping those boundaries.

"They want me to be licensed through them," says Taylor, the owner and operator of COM-CEP Learning Center Inc., a computer training center in Little Rock.

Taylor provides lessons in computer literacy. He calls it "computerized multimedia learning."

Under the definition of the legislative act that created the board, a "school" is "any person, firm, partnership, association or corporation seeking to do business or offering ... training for credit that leads to or enhances occupational qualifications."

The definition goes on to include institutions that offer instruction to student fliers or mechanics. It also includes organizations that prepare students for exams that could lead to employment.

It's the final definition Taylor has a problem with.

And he is willing to go to court to decide the issue.

"They're saying the knowledge gained here could be put to use in the future," says Taylor, whose operation consists of six work stations. "We're more like a library than anything else. They learn all of their lessons on the laserdisks.

"There are no teachers. I have myself and two other people who work here. Basically, the teacher is that laserdisk."

Taylor says his job consists of scheduling lessons and assisting students with problems they might have with their computers.

"Eighty percent of my business is corporate," he says. "Business types, federal employees ... We work on a flex schedule. People set up their own appointments. There are no long-term contracts, no student loans, no government grants."

Learning Experience

Taylor's charges are based on an hourly rate and the system students wish to learn.

"People can't always wait for the next semester at a vo-tech or get on at a business college," he says. "They'll provide the effort, and I'll provide the atmosphere conducive to learning."

According to the Board of Private Career Education and its director, Linda Beene, what Taylor operates is technically a school.

Subsequently, it must be licensed.

"We are responsible for licensing private-sector training organizations," Beene says. "... I see myself as providing assistance to both individuals and organizations. We come at this from an assistance standpoint."

State law says only community colleges, state universities and religious schools are exempt from the board's guidelines. The law is designed to protect consumers as well as career-school operators.

Statewide, there are 183 organizations licensed. Six or seven applications are pending, according to Beene.

"We're doing our best to implement the law in a fair and professional manner," she says.

"To me, it sounds like a board trying to get lots of money to justify its existence," Taylor responds.

A fee is required of each organization seeking a license. There also is a sliding-scale charge that goes into a student-protection fund. The fund is used to pay claims filed by students against career schools.

"Education is not a taxable item," Taylor says. "I can't charge a sales tax here."

Lawsuit Filed

Taylor and his attorney, John Purtle of Little Rock, filed a lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court appealing a cease-and-desist order issued by Beene on Oct. 25.

The state ordered Taylor to "cease all operations as a school in violation of Arkansas law."

The order followed an Oct. 3 board hearing. Beene and the board met in executive session, according to Taylor, who attended the hearing with Purtle.

On Oct. 25, Taylor filed a complaint with the prosecuting attorney's office alleging the agency violated the state Freedom of Information Act.

"I was not aware of a violation," Beene says. "... Based on my memory, there was no executive session called.

"There are two issues here. One is whether or not his organization should be licensed. The other is the FOI complaint. They are separate issues."

"They came back into open session |and~ announced the result," Purtle says.

The board's chairman is Richard Holbert of Little Rock's Central Flying Service Inc. Other members include Byron Thompson of National Education Center and Marty Berry of Little Rock's Draughon Business College.

Purtle also represents Sharon Stark, who owned COM-CEP's predecessor with her husband and now runs Born Free Inc., which produces the laserdisks used by Taylor for his lessons.

"I could not be more confident that the court will go along with |us~," Purtle says. "I believe they will quash the order."

"They are harassing |Taylor~. This is not the type of organization the act was intended to prohibit."

The Legislature approved the bill in 1989 to prevent fly-by-night operations and protect those "not given their money's worth," Purtle says.

"This is about the career colleges," says Cathy Connally, the owner of Connally Consulting Inc. of Little Rock. "People are paying thousands of dollars and not getting anything."

Caught Unaware

Connally, whose firm creates and installs software in addition to providing computer training, takes Taylor's side.

She thinks the fees required by the agency are exorbitant.

"We had to do it," says Connally, who opted to license her firm rather than fight the system. "We signed up. Then, lo and behold, there were more charges ... Then, we received another bill from the city, a privilege fee.

"What |Beene~ said and what happened are totally different. I don't think it was presented to me accurately ... I don't agree with the tactics. Let me tell you, she played hardball."

"We are complimented frequently on the manner in which we conduct our work -- by the companies and by the consumers," Beene says. "But we can't make everybody happy. For every compliment you get, somebody has another idea."

One who knows how difficult Beene's job is works in Oklahoma City. He's Dennis Rea, director of the Oklahoma Board of Private Vocational Schools.

"Probably half of the schools we have licensed think they shouldn't be licensed," Rea says. "We probably have turned over a dozen to the attorney general's office."

Rea says the only exemption he would allow in a case such as Taylor's would be a customer-service option in which a company provided training on computers sold by the company.

"If it were over here, we would require them to be licensed with that kind of operation," Rea says.

Taylor also owns COM-CEP franchises in Nashville, Tenn., and the Toledo, Ohio, suburb of Maumee. He plans to open a similar operation in Dallas "within a month."

Taylor hopes to have franchises scattered across the country in the next two to three years, although there may be one less operation in Arkansas.

Taylor is threatening to leave the state if the lawsuit is not resolved to his satisfaction.

"I may just move to Dallas," says Taylor, an Arkansas native. "I'm sure in the back of |Beene's~ mind, she's sure everything she's doing is right."

"But in the back of my mind, I know I'm right."
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Title Annotation:computer training COM-CEP Learning Center Inc. will sue Arkansas Board of Private Career Education over laws on learning centers
Author:Taylor, Tim
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Nov 18, 1991
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