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Oregon community college seeks bond issue

Oregon Coast Community College will ask voters in Lincoln County to fund a $33M bond issue to build a Trades Education Center at the school’s main campus in Newport, OR. OCCC has not sought a levy for nearly 20 years. If approved, the new levy will replace the one that is about to expire. Residents will not see any increase in their taxes if the measure passes. The State of Oregon has committed $8M to the project, conditioned on voter approval of the bond measure.

Given today’s unfavorable interest rates, high construction costs, and steep declines in enrollment, combined with uncertain state funding, a taxpayer-approved levy is the only prudent way to fund new construction on a community college campus. Using the school’s operational dollars to guarantee repayment of general obligation bonds is simply not worth the profound and growing risk.

At one time, community colleges could be relied upon to generate steady enrollment, but in the past decade, community college enrollment has dropped by nearly one million students. While enrollment is giving signs of stabilizing, we’re not likely to see large gains in enrollment like we did during and after the Great Recession.

The sad part is that it didn’t have to be this way for community colleges. Following the Great Recession, community college administrators could have used their funding and time to develop new programs, correlate their work with the economic development efforts of their cities and counties, and prepare themselves (and their communities) for the major economic shifts that we’ve all been talking about for the last decade.

Instead, they inflated their payrolls, expanded their administrations, cut occupational education programs (because they were “too expensive”), ignored failing infrastructure, and diverted funds away from instruction to their pet projects.

Community college administrators failed to build program catalog

Now, the politicians -who have provided funding for community colleges every year – hail these institutions as a key part of our growth strategy. They want to repatriate manufacturing and semiconductor production, but guess what? Many community college administrators dumped the programs that would have supported those initiatives years ago because manufacturing programs were among those programs that were deemed “too pricey.”

I always feel bad when I find politicians who extoll the virtues of community colleges and insist that they’re going to “save” us. They clearly haven’t gotten the memo that our community colleges, in which we have invested billions, no longer have the capacity to perform as expected – largely due to a decade or more of administrative neglect and lack of effective governance.

It did not have to be this way, but if we expect our community colleges to perform, we need immediate administrative reform and an effective governance mechanism. Unfortunately, right now the cupboard is bare.

Photo Credit: Thomas, via Flickr