East Central Illinois Community Colleges Grapple with State Budget Impasse
Tom Ramage, the president of Parkland College in Champaign, made headlines earlier this month when he said that state officials were telling him that due to the state budget impasse, there might be no state funding at all for higher education in the current fiscal year. But what do officials at other nearby community colleges think?
Governor Bruce Rauner’s administration denied saying anything about zero higher education funding.
Meanwhile, leaders and officials with three other east central Illinois community colleges say that what they heard in recent meetings with the governor was a lot of uncertainty about the budget and higher education funding.
Danville Area Community College (DACC) president Alice Jacobs says that she didn’t hear a definitive statement during her meeting with the governor that there might be no state funding for higher education in FY 2016.
“I don't believe that we received a message that strong, when we met with Governor Rauner,” said Jacobs. “But I know that everything is very uncertain. And I’m well aware that December is almost here, and we still don't have a budget.”
DACC, along with Richland Community College in Decatur and Lake Land Community College in Mattoon have all struggled through most of the fall semester with no state funding, just as Parkland College has.
Lake Land College president Josh Bullock says in the meeting he took part in, Governor Rauner was clear in stating that education was an essential tool for helping Illinois to grow out of its current budget problems. But at the same time, Bullock says he was told that for the current budget year, the governor could not promise any specific funding for higher education.
”You know, I think the messaging for us was not that there won't be money, but right now it's still up in the air whether the state will have funds to provide for education,” said Bullock.
Richland College Executive Director of Public Information Lisa Gregory says that Gov. Rauner hinted at the possibility of at least a partial loss of state funding this year, during a meeting with various state university and community college presidents.
“And then a president asked if, when a budget was ultimately enacted, would community colleges be reimbursed retroactively?” said Gregory. “And the answer was, don't count on it.”
With that uncertainty looming, Lake Land, Richland and DACC are all cutting back for the spring semester. They’re suspending student MAP grants. Lake Land and Richland are putting their entire adult education programs on hold, while DACC has cut back on the program. Richland is suspending its programs at state prisons, while DACC is reviewing its programs at corrections facilities.
Also, Richland is raising tuition for the spring semester by $5 per credit hour. Both DACC and Lake Land are holding steady on tuition rates.
Richland’s Lisa Gregory notes that there was no state money for the fall semester either, when the college kept its programs largely intact.
“So essentially, we floated the state $1.6 million, without any understanding of how we would be reimbursed, or reimbursed at all,” said Gregory.
State funding provides a substantial part of the operating budget for each of the three community colleges -- 14% for Richland, 24% for DACC and 30% for Lake Land.
In addition to state funding and tuition, community colleges in Illinois rely on a local property tax for revenue. Officials with Richland, Lake Land and DACC all say that no decision has been made yet on property tax rates for the next year.
Officials with all three colleges say more program cuts could be coming if the state budget impasse continues.
But Danville Area Community College President Alice Jacobs says if there’s a budget agreement soon, that includes funding for higher education, they could act quickly to restore the programs that have been cut for the spring semester.
“We are a community college and one of our hallmarks is that we're able to turn on a dime,” said Jacobs. “We're very nimble. So it is never too late for a community college to be able to use resources to meet community needs.”