Budget cuts coming

Governor Chris Gregoire’s budget proposal calls for widespread cuts. Among the programs and organizations on the chopping block are community colleges. South Puget Sound Community College, along with other community colleges in Washington State, will face a 23% reduction in funding, should the governor’s proposal be adopted.

“It’s hard to be really optimistic in the current environment,” said college President Gerald Pumphrey.

This is likely to change, however, as the state legislature ultimately has budgetary authority.

“The governor has proposed a budget at this point,” said Pumphrey. “We do not have proposals from the House and the Senate.”

The governor’s proposal is important because it is, generally, the standard by which the legislature’s budget is formed.

“The governor always releases hers first and that’s kind of a benchmark by which we evaluate the House and Senate proposals,” said Pumphrey. “They could be better or they could be worse based on their priorities.”

Either way, the proposed cuts are nothing new to community colleges. The last few years have seen fiscal crises that have led the legislature to cut funding, according to Pumphrey.

“It’s a very, very challenging budget environment coming after a two year period in which we’ve already sustained really, really significant cuts,” said Pumphrey.

Funding from the state for community colleges, Pumphrey said, first goes to the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC). The board then allocates money to each individual college.

Administration at SPSCC must find ways to cut the difference in money they will not receive from the SBCTC which they did receive last year, according to Pumphrey.

“Right now, as a rough planning number, we’re trying to find $1.3 million in savings for the next biennium,” said Pumphrey. “That’s on top of approximately $4 million we’ve already taken out of the state budget to date.”

“That’s why I have a hard time summoning much optimism,” said Pumphrey.

The college has several options for managing these cuts, said Pumphrey. The low-impact approaches, like thermostat lowering, low-energy light bulb use, and campus closures during the summer have all been exhausted.

That leads college officials to the difficult job of deciding between two unpleasant, but effective solutions: raising tuition, or cutting classes.

The problem, as Pumphrey sees it, is that both of these options are bad for students.

“There are two ways that you can limit access for students,” said Pumphrey. “One is to raise tuition so they can’t afford it. The other is to cut the budget of the college so that it cannot afford to offer…enough class sections to meet the student need.”

Though Pumphrey and the administration see both options as bad ones, the budget hole still must be filled.

“So that always puts us in a really tough quandary. Do we charge more or do we offer less?” said Pumphrey.

Increasing tuition by 10 percent is the most likely option to be utilized, Pumphrey said.

“They’re proposing to make part of that up by charging you more tuition,” said Pumphrey. “I think 10 percent is pretty big. On the other hand we’re also not serving all the students who want to get classes.”

The college has already made cuts to services where it could, according to Pumphrey. Catering services are no longer offered, and last year the Washington Center for the Performing Arts contracted with SPSCC to provide service through the Kenneth J. Minneart Center for the Arts, eliminating the cost of doing so for SPSCC. In exchange, Pumphrey said, the Washington Center receives a portion of ticket sales and is able to rent the facility.

The administration cut 60 course sections last year, attempting to focus on less popular or necessary courses.

“We targeted those sections that had historically low enrollment,” said Pumphrey.

Another option available to the college is the reduction of salaries for staff and faculty.

“We don’t know whether that’s going to materialize,” said Pumphrey, because contractual obligations make such cuts unfeasible.

The situation has been slightly ameliorated, however.

“On the positive side, our enrollment is at record levels,” said Pumphrey. “That has sheltered us from some of the impact.”

In order to avoid further cuts to course sections and offerings, college officials are appealing to state legislators. Pumphrey said they “will work the legislative process as best we can to try to get improvements.”

Nik Steele, vice president of administration and finance, visited Senator Karen Fraser with Pumphrey and Cort Campbell, senator for legislative affairs and other SBCTC representatives to make their case for fewer cuts.

Steele said they spoke with Fraser about “keeping the cuts as low as we can.”

Campbell and Steele also explained to Fraser that cutting classes leads to more time spent in college by students to achieve the same degree. Campbell gave a personal example.

“Some students, like me, have parents who make too much money to qualify for financial aid, but we don’t make enough on our own to pay for tuition without financial aid,” said Campbell.

Steele plans to continue meeting with legislators to make his case.

The college has solicited ideas from the community, said Pumphrey. Some of them are feasible, and some are not.

Pumphrey said that those community ideas that are feasible, along with ideas from the college vice presidents will be submitted to the college council. Then, the council will put together a prioritized list of cuts and submit it to Pumphrey.

All of these actions, said Pumphrey, are in preparation for the final budget cut figures which will be made by the legislature.