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Delay in proposed STEM building is the latest problem to trouble ECC

Financially troubled Erie Community College is facing a new trouble: It’s long-awaited academic building on the North Campus is being delayed. The latest word is that the building will not be ready as hoped by fall 2017. County officials now say that the building, planned for the Youngs Road side of the campus, will be ready by December 2017 or January 2018.

The college will lose a major recruiting tool for the fall semester next year: the prospect of a spanking-new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) facility. That could have proved useful for a college facing a big budget shortfall.

ECC does not have time to waste in plugging that gap, caused in large part by a precipitous decline in enrollment.

As News staff reporter Jay Tokasz wrote, between spring 2012 and this year, “total enrollment has dropped by 21 percent, from 11,115 students to 8,788 students.” The financial picture is bleak, because state law dictates the funding formula for community colleges include one-third from students, one-third from the state and 27.6 percent from the sponsor county. State and county aid is essentially flat. Tuition has gone up $600 in recent years, and another increase will help drive students to neighboring counties.

But even if the new STEM building attracts hundreds of new students, a major restructuring will still be necessary.

The college’s finances are on life support. Resorting to depleting its fund balance and shifting the burden to students is an unsustainable model.

College officials need to spend less, perhaps by thinning staff, and focus more on building up high-demand programs such as advanced manufacturing and the nursing program, which is at capacity. Each year a hundred Erie County residents study nursing at Niagara County Community College, costing Erie County taxpayers $1 million.

School officials hope to consolidate and enlarge the nursing program near the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, but for now there is no funding for the move.

ECC has a key educational role. It offers associate degrees that can propel students on to four-year colleges, but it also offers many certificate programs, a primary source of workers to fill skilled jobs.

The need is clear: ECC has to get moving on the STEM building while getting control of its fiscal problems.