North Idaho College desperately needs more buildings to be able to handle the student growth that’s headed its way, acting President Ronald Bell told the Legislature’s budget committee Thursday.
“The facilities at North Idaho College are what I would consider minimal,” Bell said. “… I am astounded at what this college has been able to do with the small set of facilities it has on this campus.”
Bell, a relative newcomer to the college, is filling in until a permanent president can be hired. Inadequate facilities aren’t the only problem he’s discovered.
NIC has been putting the money it hasn’t spent at the end of each year back into its operating budget, rather than into reserves or one-time expenses. That’s not financially sound, Bell told lawmakers.
Recent reports that NIC has a $1.1 million surplus make it sound like the college is rich, he said. “That’s soft money. It’s not on the table - it’s budgeted.”
“We do not have any kind of reserves for capital - that’s a problem,” he said. “Everyone’s coming in and saying everything is wonderful. No, it’s not. I think we have some real problems.”
Rep. Don Pischner, R-Coeur d’Alene, said he’s been urged to cut NIC’s budget to punish the college board for firing former President Bob Bennett. But Pischner said as a community college supporter, “that goes against the grain.”
Bell responded, “I would encourage you not to do something that would basically, in the final analysis, hurt students.”
If the Legislature is concerned about firings or buyouts of administrators’ contracts, it could set general guidelines to apply to all colleges or universities statewide, Bell said.
“But if it looks like you’re doing it to slam at a board that basically won’t be there, they aren’t going to get hurt.”
Bell said the Legislature should trust the locally elected board to run the college. “Locally elected boards have a responsibility. They’re not called trustees for nothing.”
He added, “Ask yourself: Should you become involved in running a college at a distance? That’s my concern.”
Among the challenges facing NIC, Bell said, is “a terrible glut of folks coming to higher education not prepared to read and write.”
If answers to that remedial education problem can be pushed in the high schools and not just at the community college level, they’ll be more effective, he said.
Legislators on the budget committee praised Bell for his presentation, and asked him to compare community college funding in his home state of Washington and elsewhere to Idaho’s system.
Bell said Washington community colleges receive 95 percent of their funding from the state, but their laws were written to preserve local control. In general, he said, “The combination of some local money with state money keeps to keep that community involved.”
Kootenai County residents pay more than $5 million in property taxes each year to help fund North Idaho College, but that’s 25 percent less than the law allows the college to take. The college’s budget is about $18 million, including $6.9 million in state funds and $3.6 million in tuition and fees.
The College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls also levies some local property taxes. Other state colleges and universities are completely statefunded.
Pischner said he was born and raised one block from NIC, and he, both his daughters and several other relatives attended the school. It’s a great asset to the community, he said.
“We get a lot of benefits.”
Some local property tax funding to help support such a community asset seems fair, Pischner said. But, he added, “What’s unfair is most of the other communities don’t do that.”
Pischner noted that since being elected to the Legislature four years ago, he’s voted for every proposal to shift that funding to the state.
Last year, Gov. Phil Batt won approval to replace $1 million of the two community colleges’ property tax funding with state funds. That won Kootenai County taxpayers a $500,000 property tax cut.
But the governor hasn’t proposed any additional moves like that this year. His budget calls for a 10.5 percent increase in state funding for community colleges, but he didn’t set aside any money for new buildings.
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