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County legislators question new ECC president on budget and beyond

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Erie Community College needs to respond quickly to economic stresses, a consultant's draft report makes clear.

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SUNY Erie Community College is poised to cut staff by more than 150 people in the next month – and that’s just the beginning of the restructuring needed to keep the college alive, ECC President David Balkin told county legislators Thursday.

ECC is also looking at reducing its South Campus footprint from occupying seven buildings to two or three and leasing out the others, and the college still needs to weed out duplicate positions, programs and offices from the days when ECC’s three campuses served as three separate colleges, Balkin said.

Balkin discussed the challenges facing ECC during an Erie County Legislature hearing on the college's proposed $98.6 million budget for 2022-23. It was Balkin's first in-person meeting with legislators since taking over as ECC president four months ago.

Legislators asked tough questions and at times pushed Balkin to present more specific plans for increasing enrollment and reconfiguring programs, while Balkin said his first priority is to right the ship before it sinks.

The review explored several facets of the proposed budget – including raising tuition while scrapping a failed resource planning service that has cost ECC and the county $16 million since 2017.

It also touched on Balkin’s role as a troubleshooter with an industry background whose efforts to cut costs haven’t won him much support among ECC faculty and administrators.

Balkin came to ECC with 20 years’ experience in industry and a success story of turning around an Indiana community college that was in similar straits to ECC. But that college didn’t have unions representing its employees. ECC has four.

Andrew Sako, president of the Faculty Federation of Erie Community College, did not attend Thursday’s review, but he said 90% of his members feel that Balkin is not working in the best interests of ECC or the community.

“Determining what the college will look like needs to be done in a thoughtful manner with input from students, the workforce and the community,” Sako said. “We can right this ship, but it can’t be done in two or three months.”

At the review, Balkin answered questions from legislators with details he had not yet shared publicly.

Staffing

Balkin has been unwilling to estimate how many layoffs are in store at ECC because the college is hoping more senior faculty and administrators will opt into a retirement incentive offered by the county and ECC.

As of Thursday, 38 people had signed up for the incentive, and they have until mid-July to opt out or commit. ECC consultant William Reuter – who served as interim president before Balkin arrived –said those retirements will use $1.4 million of the $2.5 million the county allocated for incentives. But adding the cost of benefits means ECC will save $5 million next year, he said.

Committee Chair John Gilmour, D-Hamburg, asked how many will be laid off if no one else opts in for retirement. Balkin put the total at “a little over 150” including the 38 retiring. That means he’ll lay off at least 112 people if more don’t retire.

Footprint

When pressed by Minority leader Joe Lorigo, C-West Seneca, Balkin said ECC is looking at reducing its footprint at its South Campus by more than half. “We have seven active buildings and we can probably fit all of our programs there into two or three,” he said.

He said 50% of ECC students attend the North Campus, which needs to address years of deferred maintenance. About 26% attend City Campus and about 22% attend South Campus, he said. While ECC wants to “maintain a presence in the Southtowns,” projections indicate that population, high school classes and employment opportunities there are decreasing.

Tuition

Lorigo asked about the plan for a 3% tuition increase – amounting to $75.50 per semester – “at a time when inflation is through the roof.” Balkin noted ECC had no tuition increase in each of the last four budgets.

Balkin said that for most students, financial aid from the state’s Tuition Assistance Program will “mitigate the hit” of the increase and that at some point, not raising tuition could imply that ECC programs are losing value.

Work Day

In 2017, under then-president Dan Hocoy, ECC invested in a new Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) system called WorkDay, which had success in industry but had not been applied to higher education. Over the past five years, ECC spent $12.5 million on the WorkDay platform and consulting fees to implement it and $3.5 million on its previous system that it could never transition out of because WorkDay doesn’t work.

“WorkDay has been a disaster, and a very expensive disaster,” Reuter said.

Gilmour asked if the platform was salvageable. Balkin said no.

Rather than put any more money into a failed system, he wants to join the 46 SUNY campuses that use Banner, an ERP system designed for colleges and customized for shared use by SUNY schools.

ECC requested $9 million from the county over the next three years to join Banner, but Balkin said the actual cost will be $18 million.

“We are hoping that state matching funds will cover the other $9 million,” he said.

Programs

Legislator Lisa Chimera, D-Tonawanda, said she is concerned that the focus on ECC’s problems will dissuade potential students.

“How do we attract students when the message is slash and burn?” she asked.

Balkin said ECC is deactivating only low-performing and, in some cases, outdated programs while looking to work more closely with area industry to make sure programs meet the needs of the local workforce. He said ECC’s portfolio of programs hasn’t changed in years, and some course plans date back to 2005.

“If you are developing a program, you had better be working with industry to make sure you are meeting their needs,” he said. “We want companies to rely on us to develop the competencies that their employees need to succeed.”

Balkin said ECC has plenty to brag about, like its respiratory therapy program and a nursing program that was recently ranked second in the state by registerednursing.org after the University at Buffalo.

He said he would love to spend more time publicizing those programs and reaching out to every ECC applicant, but he doesn’t have that luxury yet. “We have to first and foremost fix the things that are broken,” he said.

While Legislator John Mills, R-Orchard Park, called Balkin “a real breath of fresh air,” Legislature Chair April Baskin, D-Buffalo, suggested his “leadership style” and urgency to “get things done” may be getting in the way of building relationships with ECC’s faculty and administrators. She offered to serve as an ambassador between ECC’s administration and unions if needed.

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Higher Education Reporter

I'm the new Higher Education reporter on The Buffalo News business enterprise team. I previously worked at The Post-Standard/Syracuse.com and Syracuse's Rosamond Gifford Zoo. I'm a Rochester native with family in Buffalo. Email me at jgramza@buffnews.com.

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ECC President David Balkin said a preliminary review by an education consulting group describes the college as suffering from years of overspending on redundant administrations and faculty across its three campuses and calls for staff cuts to reflect student enrollment that dropped by nearly half in the last decade.

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