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ECC must develop a way to control its serious financial challenges

The sustainability of Buffalo’s economic resurgence depends upon many factors, but one key is the educational system that will be preparing workers for the emerging economy.

It is the reason that the underperforming Buffalo School District generates so much concern. But there is another educational component that needs to be addressed.

Erie Community College is facing serious fiscal challenges. According to “ECC Excels: A Strategic Initiative for the Future of Erie Community College,” the college requires an additional $4 million a year in operating support along with $25 million over five years for capital projects.

Getting anywhere near that full ask does not seem realistic. Under state law, community colleges are to be funded based upon a formula that calls for one-third from students, one-third from the state and 27.6 percent from the sponsoring county.

State aid has been flat, and Erie County is proposing only a small increase, $245,883, that would bring annual operating aid to $16 million. Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz is also proposing $4.1 million for the college’s capital projects in his 2016 budget.

Still, it’s a far cry from what ECC says it needs. The college has resorted to depleting its fund balance and shifting the burden to students, who have been hit with $600 in tuition hikes in the past two years.

The current woes are a result of declining enrollment, which drives 80 percent of the revenue. College officials hope to stabilize enrollment in 2016-17. That will be a start, but the college needs more tuition-paying students.

Some steps are being taken. A $30 million science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) building expected to be built on the North Campus should slow the tide of students heading to nearby Niagara County Community College.

The college’s advanced manufacturing and nursing classes are filled. Opening more slots in popular programs will help the bottom line. School officials recently announced a desire to consolidate and enlarge its nursing program near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus. Although funding has not been lined up, it’s the type of forward thinking that is required.

The cost side is also important. Increased health care costs are a burden on finances. It helps that labor contracts have been settled with the college’s two largest bargaining units, giving the college some cost certainty. But rather than just slowing the rise in costs, ECC has to look for ways to cut expenses.

The community college, through its degree and certificate programs, is one of the primary sources of workers to fill skilled jobs that are already available and those that are eagerly anticipated. The governor’s Buffalo Billion is laying the groundwork for businesses – SolarCity is one – that will provide thousands of jobs, many in emerging fields. Companies engaging in advanced manufacturing essentially guarantee those trained at ECC a well-paying position.

The college is in a difficult situation. Officials are going public with their message of fiscal necessity, preparing a blueprint that outlines how the college can meet those challenges. With a major infusion of public dollars unlikely, ECC needs to step up to re-engineer its cost structure, create programs and align existing ones to meet the needs of the new Buffalo, and right-size programs that don’t. The region has a vested interest in ECC’s success.