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Community colleges should use federal funds carefully

For the last couple of days, I’ve written about the federal support given to community colleges, and how colleges have used it. Community colleges have become a special focus of this aid. WCC has received $37M since the pandemic began.

Community colleges factor into the current administration’s plan to skill/reskill/upskill a large portion of the population. Free community college programs have entranced people at every community level. These programs are propelled by the belief that education is the best approach to pulling people at the lowest income levels out of poverty.

Free community college at the federal level is not a foregone conclusion, but it has received significant attention from lawmakers and the people they represent. If the proposed $3.5T spending package passes, it’s on.

Most community colleges don’t enjoy the community funding that WCC receives each year. Each state has its own funding mechanisms, leaving some community colleges almost fully dependent upon the state government for revenues. Other schools rely heavily on student tuition and fees for most of their revenues. The broad financing spectrum means that some community colleges are well prepared to take on more students. Others – not so much.

So, the $37M wasn’t dropped off at WCC for the sole purpose of covering its COVID-19 losses. WCC hasn’t lost $37M since the beginning of the pandemic. In this context, you must consider the large dump of federal aid to be a down-payment of sorts. There’s a lot of “make-ready” work that needs to be done if community colleges are going to accommodate the millions of prospective students covered under the plan.

That make-ready could include creating new programs, expanding classroom spaces, or correcting years of building neglect. It could also include the expansion of social and medical services for low-income students. Or the expansion of infrastructure.

Federal funds weren’t meant to correct community colleges spending mistakes

So, it’s unfortunate that the WCC Administration chose to divert $4M of this money to pay for the losses incurred by the Health and Fitness Center. The Health and Fitness Center was not built as part of WCC’s mission to the community. The community did not ask for or need this facility. Initially, WCC students were not even permitted to use the building. The Trustees authorized the construction of the facility strictly as an income-generating venture.

Low-quality construction has plagued the building since it opened, and it has cost the taxpayers additional millions in maintenance and repairs. Worse, the Trustees have done absolutely nothing to protect the outsized risk they have generated for Washtenaw County taxpayers. There is no exit strategy for this venture. The business model relies on oversubscribing the facility and running it at full capacity daily. That approach just doesn’t work. It has only accelerated the deterioration of the facility. COVID-19 currently makes it impossible to run the building as required to make the operating strategy work.

And the taxpayers are left to foot the bills for the Trustees’ low-quality decision-making.

So, while using $4M of federal funds to shore up WCC’s General Fund is understandable, the Health and Fitness Center once again short-changes the community. The Administration could have – and should have – used that money to benefit the community. Instead, it’s disguising the fundamentally flawed governance of our community college.

$4M is a lot to lose, don’t you think?

The enormity of the Health and Fitness Center’s operating loss is stunning. Tonight’s Board packet recommends that WCC spend $2.6M to expand the Great Lakes UA Training Center. Likewise it recommends that WCC approve an additional $3.5M to expand the scope of the Morris Lawrence Building project. Either one of these projects will cost less than the Health and Fitness Center’s operating losses.

$4M represents nearly 38,100 credit hours, or 635 associate degrees. It’s roughly equivalent to the loss of 1,270 full-time students in a fiscal year. It is 3.35 times larger than the amount of scholarship money WCC budgeted in FY21. $4M is more than twice the amount WCC spent on utilities in FY21. It’s 2.67 times the budget for Facilities Neglect, and more than 13 times the maintenance budget.

It’s the equivalent of totaling a Bugatti Chiron Super Sport.

The Trustees, in their dim wisdom, have done nothing more than rely on the assurances of WCC executives that the Health and Fitness Center could cover its own operating expenses. It has yet to do that. Granted, it’s only been in operation since 2007, but the pandemic has dealt the fitness industry a serious, long-term blow.

Based on the number of county-wide mailers I’ve received, the WCC Administration’s plan to fix the Health and Fitness Center involves oversubscribing the building once again. Unlike its subscriber base, the Health and Fitness Center’s bond debt will escalate each year through 2027. How does the administration plan to manage future operating losses?

And if the Biden Administration’s free community college program comes to pass, WCC’s campus will be less ready to support it because the Administration used $4M in federal funds to patch the damage the Health and Fitness Center inflicted on the General Fund.

Photo Credit: Automotive Rhythms , via Flickr