Purse strings drawn tight at Md. community colleges

Governor proposes spending $20 million less than expected

March 14, 2002|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Community colleges across Maryland are planning tuition increases and hiring freezes and delaying building projects as $20 million in state aid they had been promised for the coming year appears unlikely to arrive.

For the college presidents, the timing couldn't be worse.

The threatened reductions occur as most two-year colleges are attracting record numbers of students seeking degrees or training to improve their chances of finding new jobs to replace positions they lost in the recent economic downturn.

The state's 15 two-year schools had been expecting a state funding bonus in the coming year under a formula linking community colleges to the 9 percent spending increase the state's four-year colleges got this year. But that extra money appears to be gone.

"It just comes at the wrong time for us -- the time of our greatest growth. If four-year schools cap enrollments, even more students will want to come here," said Mary Ellen Duncan, president of Howard Community College in Columbia.

"It feels like we were just totally ignored," said Kay Bienen, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges, noting that the flat 4 percent increase proposed by Gov. Parris N. Glendening "is better than no percent."

At community colleges across the state, Glendening's move is translating into higher tuition, postponed computer labs and other buildings, and cuts to everything from hiring instructors to spending on travel.

Baltimore County's three colleges might get $3.7 million less than expected -- the biggest operating budget reduction in the state. Carroll County might not get a much-anticipated nursing education building, delaying the start of a nursing education program in Carroll. Anne Arundel is looking at $2 million less in operating funds and the loss of $9 million in state money to cover half the cost of a new classroom building.

Tuition rose $5 a credit last fall at fast-growing Harford Community College, where President Claudia E. Chiesi said her board is "waiting for all the dust to settle" before deciding on additional moves.

"We're always in a catch-up mode, but we've been able to plan with that," said Chesapeake College President Stuart M. Bounds, who is chairman of the Maryland Association of College Presidents. His school, which serves five Eastern Shore counties from Wye Mills, is also raising tuition $5 a credit next year, he said.

Statewide, instead of $174.9 million in state operating aid expected for 15 county community colleges, Glendening proposed $159.5 million. That's a cut of $15 million or 8.6 percent in operating spending.

In addition, Glendening proposed slashing $5 million in community college capital spending, and legislative budget analysts suggested dropping the colleges' original request for $42.8 million to $7.9 million.

Legislators have asked each college to designate projects that can be postponed, Bounds said.

The cuts have college presidents scrambling to fill holes while feverishly lobbying the General Assembly, which could restore money.

Baltimore City Community College is a state school funded differently, but has also suffered cuts, officials said.

Worse than the funding cuts, in the view of community college leaders, Glendening proposed breaking the Cade formula linking them to funding for four-year colleges, providing the flat 4 percent increase instead -- regardless of their rate of growth.

Named after the late state Sen. John A. Cade, the formula pays the community colleges, as a group, a percentage of what four-year colleges got in the previous year, pro-rated to account for differences in enrollments. The two-year schools get paid for growing enrollments on a two-year delayed basis, which only aggravates the cuts, officials said. State legislators appear ready to restore that link, but at a slightly lower percentage.

At the same time, local governments are also strapped for cash, unable to take up the slack.

"Jack Cade would be rolling over in his grave right now if he knew what was going on," said Joan Athen, chairwoman of the Maryland Association of Community College Trustees.

Still, things could be worse, several state senators noted.

"Last [recession] everybody lost money in the middle of the year," causing layoffs and midyear cuts. "This comes at the beginning," giving more time to plan, said Charles County Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Democrat who sits on the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee.

"Hopefully, in a couple of years, we'll get it back," said Sen. Edward J. Kasemeyer, a Howard Democrat who also sits on the budget committee.

In Howard County, where a new instructional building is scheduled to open next fall and money is needed to hire staff, tuition will go up $5 per credit -- a $150 annual tuition increase for a typical full-time student.

But that will make up only one-third of the expected $1 million shortfall, Duncan said.

"We have been abandoned by the state," she told County Executive James N. Robey at a local budget hearing Tuesday.

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