The Legislature has taken a first step toward creating a branch university campus in Everett, with the help of Washington State University. The decision marks the end of a proposal to have the University of Washington build an $800 million science and technology branch campus in Snohomish County.

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After years of wrangling over where to build a branch university campus in Snohomish County, the Legislature has taken a first step toward creating one in Everett, with the help of Washington State University.

The decision marks the end of a proposal to have the University of Washington build an $800 million science and technology branch campus in Snohomish County. And it kick-starts a program to help Snohomish County residents — especially Boeing machinists — go to school to become engineers.

The legislation, signed by Gov. Chris Gregoire, gives WSU management and leadership over the University Center of North Puget Sound starting in 2014. The University Center, a program now managed by and located on the Everett College campus, offers classes from a consortium of eight schools, including the state’s six four-year schools and two private schools. It serves about 500 students.

“This is going on a 20-year-long discussion on getting a more robust four-year-degree presence in north Snohomish County,” said Sen. Nick Harper, D-Everett, who sponsored the bill. “This was absolutely the best first step.”

Both the UW and the state community-college board raised questions about the bill, arguing that turning the program over to WSU would disrupt an already successful program, and that there is no money to expand because of the economic downturn.

“It was very complicated, very much about protecting turf,” said Everett Mayor Ray Stephanson.

WSU, Everett Community College and the other schools that offer classes at University Center will be required to collaborate on establishing a comprehensive, long-term plan. The aim is to expand undergraduate- and graduate-degree offerings, and the emphasis is on science, technology, engineering and math programs.

WSU also has promised to begin offering an undergraduate engineering degree at University Center starting in fall 2012, modeling it after a mechanical-engineering degree it offers at Olympic College in Bremerton, WSU spokeswoman Colleen Kerr said.

The legislation means a branch campus eventually could evolve on the site, but “there’s a lot of planning that has to occur” before that happens, said Everett Community College President David Beyer. For example, the school’s location in North Everett may not be large enough to accommodate a branch campus, he said, and the center has to prove it can draw a large number of students.

Stephanson envisions Boeing machinists going to school at University Center, after their shifts end at 2:30 p.m., to earn engineering degrees. Boeing has said it needs to hire thousands of engineers in coming years to help design the next generation of commercial airplanes, and Stephanson says he wants as many of those jobs as possible to stay in this region.

“These are really good, family-wage jobs,” Stephanson said.

There’s long been talk of creating a public college in Snohomish County. Stephanson said research shows Snohomish is one of the most populous counties in the nation without a four-year baccalaureate- and advanced-degree-granting institution.

The Legislature in 2007 authorized $4 million to begin the planning process for a Snohomish County branch campus of the UW that would serve 5,000 students by 2025. But disagreement among lawmakers the next year over whether the campus should be in Marysville or Everett resulted in a stalemate. And the forecast of a billion-dollar state-budget shortfall put a pall on any plans for major new state expenditures.

As it became clear that the economy was faltering and money wouldn’t be available, “that interest on the part of the UW really began to wane,” Stephanson said. He turned to WSU President Elson Floyd to find out if the Eastern Washington school would be interested in moving into Snohomish County instead.

Although officially taking a neutral position on the bill, the UW argued that, under Everett’s management, the center works well and is cost-effective, and that WSU already offers degree programs in Everett under the current model, UW spokesman Norm Arkans said.

“At a time when the state is making unprecedented cuts in higher education, making a commitment to a possible new branch campus seemed to us unsustainable,” Arkans said.

The State Board of Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC) opposed some parts of the bill. Jim Bricker, chairman of the SBCTC, wrote to Floyd and WSU’s board of regents, arguing that switching management of University Center to WSU would hamper the center’s momentum, and that it could take years to get back on track.

The board took a neutral position after the final bill was amended to address concerns about the makeup of the planning committee and the requirement of a plan and a budget

Stephanson said he and Everett-area legislators — including Harper and Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island — pushed for WSU management of University Center because they believe the institution needed to be under the direction of a research university if it was to eventually become a branch campus.

“The need is going to be so real, so dramatic — I predict we’re going to see a rapid expansion of University Center,” Stephanson said.

Katherine Long: 206-464-2219

or klong@seattletimes.com