In his end-of-the year message to the Erie Community College staff, President Jack Quinn delivered what one college professor characterized as “the most protracted, political non-speak imaginable,” a rambling dissertation about the challenges of the past, present, and future mixed with the hope that there are better days ahead thanks to vigilance in hiring and forward thinking by the leadership.
Needless to say, most staffers were not impressed as they continue to express concern about the future of ECC which has had to increase tuition by $300 for two straight years and faces severe financial challenges that are threatening the college’s Middle States accreditation.
Here’s part of what Quinn had to say: “Over the past year, the college has dealt with a variety of challenges, including curriculum adjustments to meet regional need (for both students and the local business community), enrollment decline, the need for resolution of outstanding contracts, evolving staff needs, facility updates---all of which impact our budget situation and, as of last week, necessitated a recommended $300 tuition increase, starting in the fall of 2015.”
Translation: ECC is foundering badly and the fix won’t be fast or easy. Many long-time staffers blame Quinn’s disengagement due to outside interests as one of the problems that has contributed to ECC’s downward spiral and while some say he has been more active lately, even giving up his Buffalo Club membership, the school’s struggles and the staff’s concerns about the school’s leadership team continue.
“I am concerned [about ECC’s future],” says Erie County Legislator Kevin Hardwick, chairman of the County Legislature’s Community Enrichment Committee which will take up the county executive’s recommendations on the ECC budget which lawmakers are schedule to receive next week.
Hardwick, a Republican, and Democratic County Executive Mark Poloncarz have been talking about the challenges facing the college and Hardwick deserves high marks for trying to develop a long-term plan for ECC in the face of the growing crisis. But in this, an election year, Hardwick and others are being cautious about what can be done to get ECC back on solid financial ground, a challenge that will have to be met across party lines. At least Hardwick is showing political courage by taking phone calls and trying to find a way to deal with a crisis that is threatening a valuable local institution.
“We’ve got a hearing (on ECC budget) set for June 4 at 3 p. m.” said Hardwick. “It will then go to the Enrichment Committee and sometime in mid-month we’ll adopt an ECC budget.” Hardwick stops there in talking about the crisis, saying discussions are ongoing and he believes efforts are being made to negotiate contract settlements with several unions although finding the money to settle those contracts may be difficult.
The county executive is recommending a slight increase in the county subsidy to ECC but the $125,000 bump is still far below the 33 percent share of the college budget that the county should be funding. The county subsidy has been holding at $17,429,317 for the last seven years under Poloncarz and Chris Collins but even with the slight increase, it is only about 15.5 percent of the school budget.
Outgoing ECC Board Chairman Steve Boyd said last month that the $125,000 “is not much of an increase,” noting that “ECC has had to use reserves and students have had to pay the freight” to keep the college going. What the future holds on county assistance remains uncertain.
Poloncarz, eyeing what many see as an easy road to a second term with a $400,000 war chest and no major scandals, is not saying much about ECC these days, a tactic he employs with most of the issues confronting his administration as he did when we confronted his failure to fill a number of high-level positions in his administration in recent months. Mum is the word on Poloncarz.
While the local political picture unfolds on the ECC mess, new light could be shed on the college’s financial operations with the release of a long awaited state audit, the first one at the school in 20 years. The state comptroller’s press office said earlier this year the audit could be released in June although no update on the timing of the audit’s release has been made public.
For now, the action will be at the legislature, in Hardwick’s committee, and maybe Poloncarz will step up with a creative fix for the ailing college which is highly unlikely in an election year because it would cost money. If Poloncarz has any ideas about trying to help the failing local college, he is keeping them to himself for now. Meanwhile, this treasure slips further into the red and threatens the delivery of local graduates to join Western New York’s growing economy. Stay tuned.