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Community colleges operate on status quo while they wait for a budget

The budget impasse between Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the Republican-led General Assembly is now inching its way into the fall. The end of the fiscal year was July 1. Two months later and with schools starting, only glimmers of hope have emerged for a budget resolution. 

One of those glimmers came in the form of an end-around attempted by Republican lawmakers: they are trying to pass pieces of the budget as standalone bills. Those bills have started to roll out. But so far, community colleges aren’t seeing the money.

One such bill did include the salary increases the community college system wanted — $12.4 million recurring in the first year and $24.8 million in the second year for community college personnel. But it hasn’t gotten a full final vote yet. The last anybody heard, House Speaker Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, was saying it was likely to come back up in a conference bill. 

In the meantime, community college presidents are having to deal without the funds they thought they had coming. 

The community college system’s budget priorities for this year include: 

  • $12 million to complete funding for short-term workforce training programs; 
  • $15 million to upgrade workforce development-focused information technology systems serving all 58 community colleges;
  • $2.8 million to expand the Career Coach Program; and
  • increased funding for faculty salaries.

Most of these priorities are addressed in the budget passed by the General Assembly and vetoed by the governor. In the absence of that budget, community colleges have reverted to operating under last year’s budget. That means they get their old funding, minus the above budget priorities and any non-recurring dollars that were in last year’s budget. 

So how are community college presidents faring? We talked with some of them, and here is what they said. 

The community college presidents

Walter Dalton, president of Isothermal Community College as well as the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents, said that community college presidents are having to work off the “status quo,” rather than the funding increases they were anticipating. 

“It just makes it harder to start your school year, not knowing what your money is going to be,” he said.

Knowing what’s in the budget and yet not having the money puts presidents like Dalton in an odd position when it comes to planning the school year. 

“You plan as if you’re going to have it; you operate as if you don’t,” he said. 

He said that it seems as though most everybody is in agreement on the budget when it comes to community colleges. He is hoping there is some way to get that money to community colleges, perhaps through a separate bill. 

“I don’t think you can count on the budget until you have a budget,” he said. 

David Shockley, president of Surry Community College, said that without the budget his school is short $200,000, which is a big deal when it comes to funding positions and some of the initiatives that Surry has. 

“Right now that’s $200,000 that we have not been able to budget or utilize,” he said, adding later: “When you multiply that statewide, multiple of my peers across the state are going to be in the same position.” 

Shockley said that Community College System President Peter Hans has been preparing presidents around the state for the different possible scenarios surrounding the budget. With a Democratic governor and a Republican-controlled General Assembly, the budget stalemate was, to a certain extent, foreseen. So, with that knowledge, Shockley said he and others have been preparing for this eventuality. 

“We didn’t want this stalemate, but we were prepared,” he said. “And I think preparation is key.” 

Mark Poarch, president of Caldwell Community College, said the biggest part of the budget his college was looking forward to was the $12 million for short-term workforce training programs. The goal behind this money is to have short-term workforce programs funded at the same level as curriculum programs. 

Poarch said his school has a big investment in this, including in programs that train truck drivers and electrical linemen. These are programs that train people and get them out in the workforce as quickly as possible. 

“Getting that parity funding for us is a huge thing,” he said. 

Poarch said that last year his school got almost $300,000 in non-recurring funds. If there is no budget, his school loses that money. 

“So it has significant budget implications for us,” he said. 

Jay Carraway, president of James Sprunt Community College, said he, too, is particularly eager for the workforce parity funding. He said a welding program taught in short-term workforce training costs the same as one taught in curriculum. So having equal funding no matter the track is important. 

“We have sought this for many, many years, and I think that’s something that will be very beneficial to what it is we’re trying to do,” he said. 

But while the state waits for a budget, he said his college is in a “semi-holding pattern.” 

Anthony Clarke, president of Southeastern Community College, said he is having to plan strategically since his school is stuck with last year’s funds. 

“We’ve looked at professional development, travel, operational expenses, and we’re targeting, right now to not spend more than 50% before December,” he said. “And that will give us cushion.” 

His school did not have many non-recurring funds, so they are not as short on cash as some other schools. 

“We’re lucky in that respect,” he said.

However, his school was supposed to get $385,000 in money to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. 

“We’re sort of slowing down the purchases so we don’t get ahead of ourselves,” he said. 

Michael Elam, president of Halifax Community College, said the budget impasse is limiting his school’s ability to grow. His school had been facing declining enrollment in past years and, in fact, had to give back money to the state when the funding for projected enrollment didn’t meet actual enrollment. But, he said his school has been growing its enrollment for a few semesters now, and it could use the funds that would address that growth. 

“If we’re growing but we don’t have the funds to keep up with that long term in this situation, it would really be debilitating to us,” he said. 

Donna Tipton-Rogers, president of Tri-County Community College, said the school is doing what it has to in order to stay operational. 

“You can’t shut the doors. You cannot turn students away … you plan as though you know what you’re expecting and people will get everything together and get the money to us,” she said.

She said the school plans a year in advance and knows exactly what it’s going to need to meet those plans. Until the budget is passed, there are just certain things the school won’t be able to do. 

While community college presidents continue to wait, Shockley said he remains hopeful. 

“You have to be an eternal optimist, so even though the skies may be dark and it’s raining and it’s storming, you have to see that it’s liquid sunshine,” he said. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.