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ECC administrators must restructure how the college delivers education

Erie Community College officials’ near worst-case scenario came true when state leaders agreed upon a budget two weeks ago.

They could have sustained a cut. Instead the budget failed to “provide the resources identified by the SUNY board of trustees as needed for our state-operated campuses and community colleges,” as a statement by the SUNY director of communications on the 2016-17 state budget began.

Higher education officials remain grateful for what they received – an agreement that held the line and provided additional funds for the continued expansion of Education Opportunity programs and centers, in addition to some key capital projects at statewide campuses.

Still, there was sharp disappointment about what wasn’t forthcoming – an increase in aid. What to do? ECC officials may want to focus on restructuring, leaving vacancies unfilled and cutting back on some courses in favor of programs that result in jobs for graduates.

ECC President Jack Quinn Jr., in a meeting last month with trustees at ECC’s South Campus in Hamburg, said they are going to find themselves having to make difficult decisions without “much-needed” financial relief. And this time, going into the fund balance or relying on a tuition increase will not solve the problem.

Proposals to boost aid to the state’s community colleges were well below what the college would have needed to “break even” compared with 2015-16. Neither the Assembly nor the Senate proposals were considered generous by college officials’ standards. The Assembly offered to increase aid to community colleges by $100 per full-time equivalent student. The Senate proposed a $50 increase. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s budget proposal included no increase. Quinn said that even meeting in the middle at $75 would not do the job. College officials offered that a $125 increase would be more helpful. State University of New York officials lobbied for an increase in the base community college aid of $285 per full-time equivalent student.

Student enrollment continues to decline and college officials have yet to stanch the bleeding. ECC will have to figure out something in light of the budget while delivering educational outcomes that keep pace with industry demand for trained workers. Downtown Buffalo’s economic resurgence is dependent upon an educational system that is properly preparing students for 21st century jobs. Much of that preparation is found in community colleges.

In the past, ECC has resorted to depleting its fund balance and shifting the burden to students, already socked with several hundreds of dollars in tuition increases over the past couple of years. It is no longer a sustainable strategy.

Quinn said the college will study the feasibility of eliminating 30 vacant jobs in its budget for 2016-17, which could save as much as $2 million. The college’s pursuit of a new consolidated school of nursing in downtown Buffalo will likely have to wait. An unfortunate consequence. The college’s chief financial officer said the key to getting through this year’s budget realities will be “vacancy control.” The college currently has nearly 70 jobs that remain unfilled.

Until ECC can find the right notch, officials will have to continue fiscal belt tightening.