The news about Erie Community College this week centered around the announced retirement of President Jack Quinn next June. That gives the college a new opportunity to move into the 21st century. Don’t get too excited.
ECC has been on a downward spiral for the past few years. You can take your pick(s) about the best excuses.
Perhaps it was the economic downturn that began in 2008, the year that Quinn began his presidency. In years gone by ECC administrators suggested that the college’s enrollment moved in the opposite direction from the local economy. Since the consensus seems to be that the economic picture in Western New York has brightened, maybe that is what is driving down enrollment. Enrollment dropped 20 percent between 2010 and 2015. Word on the street is that the fall 2016 enrollment will be at least six percent lower than the fall of 2015.
Or maybe it was the school’s small increases in state per-student aid over the past several years. The aid is based on enrollment, and increases have largely been washed out by the declining enrollment.
Or maybe it was because the contribution from Erie County only took an upturn in the past two years of the Poloncarz administration, after several years of no-growth county contributions from the Giambra and Collins administrations. In 2015 the county made a one-time contribution of $2 million to help pay for the settlement of the college’s long-expired union contracts, and another $1 million in 2016 for the college’s early retirement incentive program. County government also freed up some ECC expenses by taking over the legal work that the college was paying for.
Or maybe it is because of course offerings/conditions of campuses that has led hundreds and thousands of Erie County residents to signal their lack of interest in ECC with their feet, taking their enrollment and tuition dollars to Niagara County Community College or Genesee County Community College. Erie County taxpayers pay the “chargebacks” for those actions, to the tune of $6.8 million in 2016, an increase of 15 percent over the 2015 budgeted number.
Or maybe it was because the College Board cannot bring itself to consider closing one of its three campuses.
Or maybe it is because the College Board has done nothing to open negotiations with the neighboring counties to discuss the possibility of merging or at least coordinating course offerings and degree programs wherever possible.
Or maybe ECC’s downward spiral is the result of poor management issues at the school over the past several years, as thoroughly documented in the audit by the State Comptroller’s Office that was released last winter.
That audit highlighted issues including:
- Jobs and salaries set without public board approval
- Raises and extra pay for certain employees, determined without public board approval
- Professional service contracts initiated without following state procurement requirements and without public board approval
- Payment of vendors without contracts in place
- Failure to keep good control of the school’s affiliated organizations, the Auxiliary Services Corporation and the ECC Foundation
ECC’s Board of Trustees in April approved a “corrective action plan” as required by the State Comptroller. The plan covered four main categories that the Board committed to follow through on:
- Board oversight, including improved transparency
- Reform of procedures concerning executive salaries and benefits
- Reform of procurement procedures
- Improved control and monitoring of the two affiliated organizations
In all there were more than 20 recommendations from the audit, and the ECC Board generally agreed to implementation of the reforms and the restrictions on certain actions of the school president. Specific deadlines were set for the action. In the interest of the accountability and transparency that the Board committed to in April, it would seem a follow-up report would be in order as the new academic year begins.
But there is something else that may override the Board documenting how they are complying with the state audit.
In February County Executive Mark Poloncarz proposed a ten-member “operations and strategic planning committee” that would examine a whole host of global college issues. The committee was to be composed of five representatives of the college and five from county government.
Poloncarz proposed that the committee “examine issues related to the current operating and future direction of the college, especially as it pertains to long-term campus infrastructure needs, as well as examining operational issues detrimental to the county, such as community college chargebacks, location of classes to better address student needs, transportation, etc.”
The College Board and administration tentatively agreed to creation of the committee and immediately proceeded … to do nothing. Nothing. No committee yet appointed. No work started on seeking reforms.
Time is running out
The impending fall-2016 enrollment drop is another milestone in the decline of ECC. The issues that County Executive Poloncarz raises in his proposal for a reform committee are not there for window-dressing. The future of the school depends on a serious look at what can be done to stem the tide.
Erie Community College is an important element of the local economy. When it is struggling, when it is not living up to its potential, the county and its taxpayers are not getting their money’s worth.
The Board of Trustees, following the announcement of Jack Quinn’s retirement, is going to be tested. If they use Quinn’s delayed departure to slow the organizational and structural reforms that are needed they will be wasting a year that they do not have.
The Board of Trustees, under the requirements of state laws and regulations, has the fiduciary responsibility to make the best use of its available resources to accomplish its mission. That means going beyond complaining about how much the state and county provides them. It means being creative. It means looking at outside-of-the-box options like closing a campus and/or merging with neighboring community colleges.
If the Board uses Jack Quinn’s departing year as an excuse for not promptly working on its reform options its members will be ignoring their responsibilities to the school’s students and staff, as well as taxpayers who pay a large portion of the school’s bills through state aid, the county’s contribution, and student aid through the Tuition Assistance Program of New York State and the federal Pell grants.
The new president should be handed the Board’s action plan upon arrival next spring.
The new president will face some very difficult challenges in directing the management of the school but also in finding a way forward in positioning the school for its continuing role in the Western New York community. Because of the level of difficulty, the Board should insist on hiring a higher education professional for the job. They should insist on a full-time commitment by the new president, with no outside employment or paid board appointments. They should insist on someone skilled at making the best use of the college’s resources.
The Buffalo News report about Quinn’s retirement gives him credit for assisting with the school’s finances, but that is a bit of an exaggeration. County contribution increases are as much about support for the school by the county executive and the Legislature as anything the college has done. State aid for community colleges is set on a state-wide formula decided by the powers that be in Albany.
Much is made of the new science building that the college is about to start construction on at the North Campus, but the fact is that the project’s twists and turns have taken up pretty much Quinn’s whole tenure at ECC. Some of the obstacles were not of the college’s making, such as Joel Giambra’s attempt to scuttle the North campus building. But it is at least as important a factor in contributing to the project’s delay that the college is still $2 million short of the funds that it committed to raising to pay for its one-quarter share of the total $30 million cost. The county government is covering the $2 million to get the building constructed and opened.
The college is at a crossroads. Let’s see if they are up to the challenge.