SUNY Erie faces its future; the right to vote in America

It’s budget time for SUNY Erie.  This year’s decisions may be much more consequential than in years gone by.

Like other community colleges throughout New York State and the country, SUNY Erie has been devastated by sharp drops in enrollment.  Full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment numbers are down 28 percent over the past five years at SUNY Erie.  Lower enrollment means lower revenues from tuition, fees and state aid, which in turn impacts the programs and services the school can offer.

Following approval of a 2021-2022 budget by the SUNY Erie Board of Trustees, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz has submitted the budget to the County Legislature for approval later this month.  The county budget office worked with the college during its budget preparations.

Before getting to the details of the budget, here are a couple major SUNY Erie developments:

In County Executive Poloncarz’s transmittal letter to the County Legislature he notes “the ongoing need for the College to make additional long-term structural changes including the end of the three-campus model.  Without the projected enrollment increases in the outlying years of the 5-year plan, SUNY Erie will be in dire straits.”

That Poloncarz is highlighting the serious need to address the three-campus issue is significant, something that must be taken seriously by the Board of Trustees as well as others in county government.  To express the urgency of the matter, a special committee should be formed and given a tight deadline to report on plans to reduce the college’s footprints in the county.  The process can be long and complicated, but there is no better time to start than now.

Also worth noting, Board Chair Danise Wilson has informed the college community that “[t]he Board has decided at this time to extend the search. We will reconvene the current presidential search committee and continue the search process.”  It appears that the Board will not choose either of the two finalists for the recent presidential job search. 

The next president of the college will face significant challenges and must come prepared to immediately set the wheels in motion for the future of SUNY Erie.

Here is some information from the proposed budget:

  • The total budget is $102.7 million.  This is an increase from the nearly $95 million that was approved for 2020-2021, but the new budget is just 1.6 percent higher than the projected actual spending at the school for the current year.
  • The County Executive has agreed to increase the county’s annual contribution to the school by $1 million, which will allow tuition and student fees to be held at their current levels.
  • Projected FTE enrollment for 2021-2022 is 7,441, an eight percent drop from the current year.
  • Reasons for the drop in enrollment include a declining number of high school graduates in Western New York; increased competition with other colleges; and the impact of the state’s Excelsior Scholarship programs which has the effect of encouraging attendance at the state’s four-year schools.
  • Federal relief programs have had a major impact in allowing the college to continue its current operations.  Total aid over two years is $24.1 million.  Such assistance, however, will vanish after 2022, making the college’s planning for the future even more critical.
  • The college’s fund balance is projected to be approximately $5.5 million at the end of the current fiscal year in August.  The fund balanced was $18.4 million just three years ago.  The college is expecting to nearly exhaust the remaining fund balance during the 2022-2023 year.
  • The new budget eliminates 59 positions and is looking to hold vacancies that occur during the year to produce $1.53 million in other savings.  Additional positions have been eliminated during the current year.
  • The college’s five-year financial plan will require substantial increases in enrollment and tuition rates to replace federal funds which will be gone next year.
  • 91.55 percent of SUNY Erie’s students are Erie County residents; 98 percent are residents of New York State.
  • Just over 51 percent of the college’s students are 21 years old or younger.

Voting in America                                                                                                              

There is a major political issue this country is facing and there is often the inclination among the national press and media to reach for commentary equivalency across party lines.  When it comes to the right and opportunity to vote in America, however, there are two simple and unequivocal facts:  Democrats want to expand opportunities for Americans to vote.  Republicans are working to restrict voting opportunities.

Legislation proposed by Democrats in Congress, the For the People Act which already passed in the House, will:

  • Expand access to the ballot for millions of Americans with easier registration
  • Make casting ballots easier with early voting and absentee mail-in or drop box options
  • Facilitate voter registration and limit opportunities for partisan election officials to arbitrarily strike names from voter rolls
  • Reduce the influence of big-bucks donors
  • Highlight the need for changes in the way House of Representatives districts are drawn to control extreme partisanship

The likelihood of the For the People Act being approved in the Senate is in doubt given opposition by West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin, something not likely to change.

Legislation proposed and in many cases already enacted by Republican-controlled state legislatures and governors, will:

  • Greatly restrict voting by mail
  • Reduce the number of in-person voting locations to precipitate long lines of voters
  • Shorten the number of early voting days and hours
  • Limit drop boxes locations for absentee voting
  • Add requirements to those already in place concerning voter IDs

Voting is a fundamental right of Americans.  Despite the great focus shone on the issue during the past several months, there was absolutely no evidence of widespread voter fraud that did or could have affected the 2020 election, something falsely used by Republicans to justify their voting suppression work.

In the face of these political realities the focus in 2022 will need to shift to expanded efforts to get people registered and to the polls, regardless of the barriers that will exist.  Off-year elections are always a challenge for voter turnout.  Whether the usual mid-term turnout can be expanded will determine the outcome of next year’s election.