December 19, 2008 in City, News

Colleges react to proposed cuts

By The Spokesman-Review
 

News that would have sent panic through community colleges a year ago is instead being met with a bit of relief.

When Gov. Chris Gregoire released her proposed budget Thursday, she called on 6 percent cuts to the state’s community colleges.

That will be painful, particularly coming on top of 4.1 percent cuts already being made for this school year, said Gary Livingston, chancellor of Community Colleges of Spokane. About 80 percent of the community colleges’ budget goes toward personnel, and Livingston has said in the past that deep cuts would mean laying off some workers and cutting some programs.

Yet, he’s feeling grateful, considering that state officials last month told colleges statewide to prepare for cuts of up to 20 percent.

Among other things, “I’m optimistic we’ll still have summer school,” Livingston said. “At 20 percent, I think summer school was certainly in jeopardy.”

But there’s no guarantee that the budget eventually approved by the Legislature will look like the one Gregoire proposed to make up for an expected state shortfall of nearly $6 billion over the next two years. Advocates for social service recipients, teachers, state employees and others will be urging lawmakers to spare their constituents.

And the community colleges may not be able to count on support from their higher-education brethren. Gregoire calls for the state’s four-year universities to weather 12 percent cuts, something that University of Washington President Mark Emmert called “pennywise but pound foolish” in a statement Thursday.

“We will be working hard over the next several months with the Legislature to arrive at a budget for the university that reflects the need to cut costs and reduce spending but which does not do the kind of damage from which it may take years and years to recover,” Emmert wrote.

UW already is making its case. Earlier this month, the university distributed a glossy, 24-page report – some of the pages are purple and some of the print is gold – called “a case for continued investment.” The donor-funded publication calls UW “one of our state’s critical assets in the global economy.”

Washington State University’s response to the budget crisis has been more measured. WSU President Elson Floyd has repeatedly tried to calm anxious employees, telling them that cuts the university has made this year leave it better prepared to weather the recession than many universities nationwide. Gregoire’s proposal would cost WSU $31 million each of the next two years, but it could make up $9 million a year by increasing tuition the maximum 7 percent.

“WSU fully realizes that sacrifices must be made during these difficult financial times,” Floyd said in the press release. “The governor has repeatedly made a commitment to education and her proposed budget reflects this priority.”

Floyd and WSU Provost Warwick Bayly co-chair a 15-member committee preparing for cuts. Two of its operating principles: “Everything is on the table” and “Protect people to the extent possible.”

Eastern Washington University’s board of trustees held a special meeting Wednesday to adopt similar principles, including one that calls for courage in eliminating and consolidating programs “in order to preserve the overall quality and mission of the university.”

On Wednesday, at the annual legislative luncheon hosted by Community Colleges of Spokane, area lawmakers were told that community colleges are critical to recovering from the recession, as the place where displaced workers go for retraining and businesses go to find trained workers. Deep cuts would harm that mission, the lawmakers heard from trustees, administrators, students and employees.

“When our economies are weak, our enrollments go up,” said trustee Carol Landa-McVicker.

Lawmakers said they are sympathetic. But they’ll be hearing much the same pitch from every group affected by state budget cuts.

“How are they going to tell people who are advocates for, say, mental health programs that they’re going to lose state funding?” said CCS trustee Don Cox, who saw the process at work during eight years as a legislator. “The simple fact is, they’re not going to be able to meet all of the needs.”

Although the Legislature may call for larger increases, Gov. Gregoire’s proposed state budget would maintain limits on annual tuition increases at 7 percent for four-year colleges and universities, and 5 percent at community and technical colleges.

At that rate, students would pay an additional $310 to $450 annually at four-year schools; and $125 at two-year schools.

But some higher-education officials say it’s time to take a look at another group of college students that pays no tuition – those in Running Start.

In what is generally considered the best bargain in higher education, high-school juniors and seniors can take classes at most state colleges and universities free of charge. Some take just a few classes; others earn two-year college degrees by the time they graduate high school.

Some colleges have been forced to add classes to meet demand created by Running Start students. At times, Running Start students have taken seats in classes while traditional college students have been turned away for lack of space.

Colleges get state money that otherwise would go to the students’ school districts, but not nearly enough to cover costs. Last year, the shortfall was $35 million for 17,000 Running Start students, according to the Washington State Board for Community & Technical Colleges.

The board had planned to ask the state to reimburse an additional $15 million. With higher education instead facing millions in cuts, it may be time to consider charging Running Start students a modest fee, said Gary Livingston, chancellor of the Community Colleges of Spokane.

“Even at a small credit fee, it’d still be a very good deal,” he said.


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