Revisiting ECC issues

Patience is something that I have come to know as a very important virtue when dealing with Erie Community College. When you are looking for information for a blog post, or trying to figure out why the school administrators and those with oversight responsibilities over the institution have a different view of facts about the institution, it can be very frustrating.

On January 5th I filed a Freedom of Information Law request with the College, asking the following:

  1. The total dollar amount of tuition payments received from registered students for the fall 2018 semester, as of December 31, 2018; and comparable information for the fall 2017 semester.
  2. The total number of students registered for the fall 2018 semester who lived in the Canisius College dormitories; and the number of students scheduled to live in the Canisius dormitories for the spring 2019 semester.
  3. The total dollar amount that President Dan Hocoy received in 2018 as his bonus, per terms of his contract.
  4. A copy of the December 2018 Board policy concerning staff telecommuting.

I was informed that it would take 20 days to respond to my request. I said thank you.

After 19 days the school FOIL officer informed me on January 24th that it would take up to an additional 20 days to reply to my questions. On January 28th I posted an article commenting on the delay, noting that the four requested pieces of information did not seem so terribly difficult to produce.

On the 39th day after the original filing of the FOIL request the reply came.

Here are the responses from the College to the four questions noted above, preceded by some background commentary:

FOIL Question 1. ECC has seen declining enrollments for the past several years. This results in lower tuition income, which the school is heavily dependent on. Lower income affects program offerings and maintenance of facilities. Fund balances diminish.One way to determine what the facts are in this situation is to look at actual revenues for the Fall 2018 and compare them with the previous time period. Thus, my question number 1.

The meeting agendas for the school’s Board of Trustees include several pages referred to as the Financial Dashboard. Here is what the Financial Dashboard report about tuition revenues for the months October and November 2018 compared with the Fall of 2017:

October Report — down $1,502,501 or 7.2 percent

November Report — down $2,989,340 or 10.7 percent

But then, here is how the School responded to question 1 about the Fall 2018 tuition:

attached document created from reviewing financial data.  Currently, this data resides in three different systems, so there is no standard report, it requires manual analysis of these three sources to calculate the numbers.

Fall 2018 Tuition payments received: $25,941,820

Fall 2017 Tuition payments received: $25,436,978

This indicates that, reversing the reported results through October and November 2018 as contained in the Financial Dashboards, the College’s tuition revenues for the Fall 2018 semester, through December 2018, were up $504,842 or 2 percent over 2017-18.

The school’s 2018-19 budget documents said their finances were okay and enrollment would be about level compared with the 2017-18 year. Thus level income was anticipated for the current year. That rosy picture, however, was contradicted by internal enrollment information showing that there would be another significant drop in the Fall 2018 semester. School administrators have publically reported that all is fine, but they informed county legislators that there was in fact a drop in enrollment.

So apparently the school had a great December in collecting tuition. The next Board of Trustees meeting is not until March 28. We’ll see then what their Financial Dashboard reports on tuition revenue through December 31.

What appears to be a successful Fall semester in terms of tuition revenue makes the internal documents about declining enrollment for the Spring 2019 semester an even more interesting question.

FOIL Question 2.  When ECC and Canisius College announced last summer that Canisius would rent dormitory rooms to ECC students, both institutions hailed it as a major achievement, producing substantial income for Canisius, a lesser amount of income for ECC, and of course, the benefits of dormitory life for the ECC students who would be dorming. ECC athlete/students and international students were expected to be the main users of the facilities. The contract between the two schools indicated that ECC would need to pay Canisius in September for the full cost of the rooms that were occupied. Thus question 2 about the number of ECC dormers.

Here is the College’s response to Question 2:

attached document …is a roster for each semester pulled from our student system. All personal information (names of students) were removed, since we do not have a public student directory that would warrant disclosure of that information, so essentially these serve to show you the numbers for the counts below.

Fall 2018 semester: 55 students [4 students left during the semester]

Spring 2019 semester: 32 students

In a previous post I speculated that the dormitory program has been shifted to Daemen College for the Spring semester. The student roster provided by ECC, however, still lists the Canisius Delavan Townhouses as the location.

FOIL Question 3.  Salaries of officials at public institutions are a matter of public record. ECC President Dan Hocoy receives a base salary of $229,500 with various perks including a vehicle. His total compensation also includes an annual bonus of up to $25,000, $5,000 of which is guaranteed.

The College’s response to Question 3 about the amount of bonus Hocoy received in 2018: $10,000

To put that response in perspective, here from Hocoy’s contract is the Board of Trustees Evaluation for President Hocoy’s Incentive Bonus (2017-2020) [what appear to be typos are in the original document]:

The President is subject to an annual ECC Presidential Performance Appraisal by the Board. In each year of the Agreement, the President shall also be eligible to receive an incentive pay of up to 25,000 of which $5,000 is guaranteed. The performance evaluation and determination of the incentive pay for the preceding contract year will take place at the June Board meeting. Incentive Compensation will be distributed within 2 pay cycles or 30 days after evaluation.

The incentive pay is discretionary by the Board of Trustees, and is based upon the Board’s assessment of the President’s overall performance during the preceding year, measured as follows:

  • The President will receive incentive pay of $25,000 if the President receives a rating of “significantly exceeds” or “exceeds expectations” on 100% of voting board member’s evaluations of his performance. *
  • The President will receive incentive pay of $20,000 if the President receives a rating of “significantly exceeds” or “exceeds expectations’ on 80% of voting board member’s evaluations of his performance. *
  • The President will receive incentive pay of $15,000 if the President receives a rating of “significantly exceeds” or “exceeds expectations” on 60% of voting board member’s evaluations of his performance. *
  • The President will receive incentive pay of $10,000 if the President receives a rating of “meets expectations” or better on 60% of board member’s evaluations of his performance. *
  • If the president does not meet any of the performance indicators above, he will receive the guaranteed incentive pay of $5,000, per the employment agreement.

*A minimum quorum of six (6) Board Members are required.

FOIL Question 4, in retrospect, didn’t need to be included in my FOIL request. I asked for a copy of a Board of Trustees policy approved in December 2018 which codified and liberalized the ability of the College’s senior staff to work at home.

The December Board agenda included that policy in the backup documentation. It says in part: Though telecommuting/remote work is a viable option for certain employees and positions, it is not an entitlement. At the sole discretion of SUNY Erie executive management, telecommuting is an option that can be offered, modified or revoked by SUNY Erie at any time or for any reason… Further, for a variety of reasons, telecommuting will not be extended to all employees, regardless of the work performed. Non-exempt employees, for example, are not eligible to telecommute… Management generally will determine the specific procedures for evaluating, approving or denying a telecommuting request in a manner consistent with this policy.

So the questions are, how often will this new benefit be used, and what is the benefit to the school in allowing it? How can you run a college from home?

A review of the Board of Trustees agenda for February 7th included another interesting policy matter. There was a proposal to allow the College president to spend up to $50,000 for the hiring of consultants without prior approval of the Board. The item was tabled.

The point of all these FOIL inquiries as well as previously reported ones is to highlight serious financial and operational matters that significantly impact the College’s work and its opportunities for success. Some factors affecting financial and operational activities are within the control of the College, but others are not.

The State of New York’s “free tuition” program probably has a negative effect on ECC’s enrollment since “free tuition” may encourage prospective students who might otherwise go to ECC to instead choose a four-year school in the SUNY system.

The same might be said for the “Say Yes” program, which also provides financial incentives for students to look beyond just SUNY schools. It will take some time to determine whether “free tuition” or “Say Yes” are really successful at not just getting students into college, but also in getting them to complete two or four year programs. It will take several years to get hard data on student retention and graduation.

Given these issues, as well as the shrinking pipeline of future Western New York students who might go to college, it is really important that the ECC Board of Trustees and Erie County officials think out of the box. The school can continue to play an important role in education, but that role may not be exactly the one the institution is playing today. It may need to go back to the future.

The question about what is a manageable number of campuses that ECC can successfully operate needs to be seriously examined. Opportunities for mergers with other Western New York community colleges should to be explored and implemented. This is something SUNY trustees could facilitate with incentives, or if need be, disincentives.

The only given is that what exists now will not continue to work in the future.