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Trustee inaction limits community college options

Yesterday, I wrote about Lakeland Community College in Kirtland, OH. The school is laying off full-time staff and reducing certain services in an effort to stem the effects of a massive structural deficit. Ohio’s Auditor of State has placed the school on a “Fiscal Watch” status, and the school must come up with a remediation plan to align the school’s expenses with its annual operational funding.

Correcting the structural deficit is just one part of the solution. The other part of the solution lies in correcting the major deficits in oversight that enabled administrators to create this kind of deficit in the first place.

Even in the face of drastically lower enrollment, both in terms of students and credit hours, LKCC’s administration continued to add to the school’s payroll. It is not surprising that the LKCC administration showed little restraint in expanding the non-instructional staff. However, it is surprising that this pattern escaped the notice of the Board of Trustees, whose job it is to notice these things.

The “Sleeping Board” motif is repeated again and again at community colleges around the nation. In LKCC’s case, the Board is claiming ignorance of the school’s financial condition, which strains credulity. The school’s financial officer(s) would need to deliberately obscure LKCC’s financial position, which does not appear to be the case. They’ve simply made a host of bad decisions, and no one stopped them. In all likelihood, the Board signed off on these decisions as a matter of course.

Trustees have no obligation to rubber-stamp an administrator’s requests. The position is NOT ceremonial. When Trustee oversight fails, no other institutional controls exist. Hiring permanent employees is a pernicious act. The financial ramifications of the decision to hire potentially reach into the millions of dollars over time.

Community college trustees must deliver authentic oversight

Worse, the impact compounds as the person’s salary and benefits costs rise, when the person receives a promotion, or moves into another position within the institution. If the institution fills that person’s newly created vacancy, it perpetuates the problem.

Little thought goes into evaluating the necessity of a vacant position. Instead of using it as an opportunity to streamline business processes, which could fully negate the need to hire a replacement and reduce operating costs, the institution simply posts the position and starts over with a new, more costly employee.

Over time, technology should reduce the need for staff. Higher education has seemingly resisted this, which raises the cost of a college education and reduces enrollment. In the face of the chronic low enrollment that higher education administrators have feared, and which is rapidly approaching, community colleges will simply need to do more with less. So, investing in business process improvements with an eye toward streamlining an institution’s non-instructional staff and reducing its operational costs is long overdue. It is the only way to contain costs and to better position an institution for survival amid the coming “enrollment cliff.”

Incidentally, that’s why borrowing against the institution’s operating funds can be devastating when optimistic (but unrealistic) income predictions don’t pan out.

Closing a community college is the nuclear option for dealing with chronic financial mismanagement. Such a move wastes a multi-decade investment by the host community and disables a key tool for economic development in the region. Unless community college trustees begin to take their roles (and their authority) a little more seriously, closure will become the only logical solution for dealing with our broke and broken community colleges.

Photo Courtesy of Burnt Pineapple Productions