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Editorial: It's time to study possible merger of ECC, NCCC

A merger of Erie Community College with Niagara County Community College, two institutions with declining enrollment and the budget problems that brings, is an idea worthy of serious study.

Former Erie County Executive Joel A. Giambra says the timing – each school is looking for a new president – is ideal for a merger. Giambra, a longtime advocate for consolidating the three ECC campuses, says those vacancies represent an opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted.

ECC’s search is down to four finalists to replace President Jack Quinn Jr., who is retiring at the end of the month. NCCC is in the early stages of its search to replace James P. Klyczek after his sudden retirement in April.

Giambra sent a letter asking the State University of New York board of trustees to press the case. He also forwarded a copy of the letter to Erie County legislators, County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz and Buffalo’s elected officials.

A merger would mean fewer top-level administrative personnel with their big salaries. That could make up for a little of the decline in tuition income. It would be a particular boost for Erie County by eliminating the need for “chargebacks,” the fees imposed on counties when their residents attend a community college in another county. Erie County has been on the losing end of this raw deal for years, as Amherst students flock to NCCC.

Merging ECC and NCCC would not solve the problem of declining enrollment in both systems, but it could save money by reducing duplicative services and classes. If the colleges remain independent, they seem destined for more tuition hikes to balance budgets. Surviving and thriving requires re-engineering and restructuring.

But the coincidence of vacancies in both presidential suites should not be the reason to rush into a merger. Settling on the requirements of the new single presidency and starting the search will take too long at a time when both schools need strong leadership.

And there is much opposition to overcome, from county officials whose control might be diluted to college employees worried about their jobs to students unsure where they would be attending classes.
Uncertainty abounds, and we need to know whether what seems like a good idea really is. That calls for a study of the costs and benefits of a merger.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has demonstrated a desire to reduce layers of government as well as a keen interest in the success of this region. Here is a chance to further both goals by funding that study, as he funded the study of a site for Buffalo’s new train station.

The study will take longer to complete than the process of hiring two new college presidents. But it would at least answer the question of whether it is cost-efficient and practical to merge the colleges.

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