Former Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra has asked State University of New York Board of Trustees Chairman H. Carl McCall to push for a consolidation of community college campuses in Erie and Niagara counties.
Giambra for years argued the region can no longer support three community college campuses in Erie County and also a campus in Niagara County. He sent a letter to McCall this week urging the SUNY board to intervene. Giambra also forwarded a copy of the letter in an email to Erie County legislators, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and elected officials in Buffalo.
A SUNY spokeswoman said McCall had yet to see the letter.
"SUNY appreciates all comments, and our chairman will review it," said spokeswoman Holly Liapis.
Poloncarz spokesman Peter Anderson said the county executive had not yet seen the letter and declined to comment on it.
In an interview, Giambra said presidential turnover at both Erie Community College and Niagara County Community College presented a rare opportunity for both institutions to get together and seriously consider a merger. Longtime NCCC President James Klyczek abruptly resigned in April, and ECC President Jack Quinn Jr. is scheduled to retire at the end of this month.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks in mergers of municipalities, colleges or school districts is which mayor, supervisor, superintendent or president will survive in the merger, Giambra said.
"It seems to me that's one obstacle that's no longer available to the people who want to keep things just the way they are," he said.
The ECC board, however, is close to naming a new president. Four finalists are on campus this week and next to meet with the public. The board has scheduled a meeting for Wednesday to select one of them as the 11th ECC president.
"I think it would still be appropriate for the chairman of the board at SUNY or maybe the chancellor to step in and say maybe we need a time out here," Giambra said. "I personally believe they should stop or slow down in order to give a chance for this discussion to take place."
Dennis Murphy, chairman of the ECC board, said board members are focused on hiring the right person to lead the college.
Vincent Ginestre, chairman of the NCCC board, reacted similarly when asked about the prospect of a merger. "There's no thought of it from our end," he said. "At this point in time, we really need to discuss leadership. I don't know what would be involved, but it's not on our radar, let's put it that way."
Giambra pointed to declining enrollment, tuition increases and ailing finances at both colleges in pressing a case for consolidation. Enrollment at ECC has declined annually from a high of 13,650 students in 2010-11. Administrators have estimated 10,750 will be enrolled in 2017-18, and enrollment will go down again through 2020, before flattening out. At the same time, tuition is increasing to $4,900 in 2017-18, a 3.5 percent increase over the current tuition of $4,733 and a 43 percent over tuition in 2010.
"When you have a local population in Erie and Niagara that's getting older, smaller and poorer do we need all of this infrastructure?" Giambra asked. "Now is the time to be bold enough and brave enough, because of all the circumstances, to begin to realize that intramural competition, junior varsity competition between these two junior colleges makes no sense for anybody. It's the same geographic, demographic area that both institutions are servicing. It's the same marketplace."
Erie County Legislator Patrick B. Burke said he supported exploring a consolidation of campuses.
"It has been my continuing question as to why do we have three campuses when we are continuing to lose students," said Burke, who serves on the Legislature's community enrichment committee that oversees ECC. "We keep doing the same thing and it's not working."
"Who ends up hurting the most in this are students who pay more and more every year for a product that a lot of people don't have confidence in right now," Burke added.
Burke and Giambra said ECC and NCCC combining forces would eliminate the chargeback issue that Erie County legislators, area town officials and ECC administrators have complained about for years. About 1,300 Erie County residents already attend NCCC, making up nearly a third of the student body of the Sanborn campus. Erie County taxpayers paid NCCC $4.6 million last year in chargebacks – the fees imposed on counties when their residents attend a community college outside their home county.
But Giambra said merger talks won't go anywhere without some prodding from outside forces, such as SUNY or Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
"These kinds of consolidations are never going to happen from the bottom up," he said. "The only way it's going to happen is for the higher level of government to force it to happen. It ain't going to happen by osmosis. And it's certainly not going to happen voluntarily based on past practice in this community."