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What should taxpayers expect from community college trustees?

At a high level, we elect community college Trustees to guide and safeguard the mission of the institution that we- as a community – have invested billions of dollars into. By law, trustees have both specific responsibilities and authority. Their responsibilities encompass strategic decision-making, financial stewardship, and ensuring ethical conduct. However, poor, lax, or non-existent oversight by trustees can have far-reaching consequences that can (and do) jeopardize the very existence of an organization.

One of the most pressing dangers of inadequate oversight is financial mismanagement. A key responsibility of our community college trustees is providing oversight of the money the taxpayers send to the college each year. This year, Washtenaw County taxpayers will provide more than $70M in direct support to Washtenaw Community College, and additional support in the form of the taxes that fund WCC’s state appropriation.

When community college trustees fail to scrutinize budgets, investments, and expenditures, they open the door to embezzlement, fraud, and wasteful spending. Lack of oversight compromises the financial stability of the organization. This has long-ranging consequences for the institution. Hidden among these failures are actions like signing off on no-bid contracts or allowing the administration to spend millions of dollars and years of time on a comprehensive website redesign only to throw it all away, and then claim the project had no budget. It also includes failing to question budgetary line items like a $300,000 maintenance budget for a 1.2M sq. ft facility. ($0.25 per square foot.)

Just to show you how ridiculous that is, the average single-family residence in Washtenaw County is about 1,825 sq. ft. If a homeowner budgeted $0.25/sq ft for home maintenance on the average Washtenaw County home, that would be $456 per year. That doesn’t even come close to reasonable.

Community college trustees authorize poor strategies, unnecessary expenses

WCC’s administrative hiring is another prime example of this. A mid-sized community college with a single full-service campus does not need twelve Vice Presidents – yet, the Washtenaw Community College Trustees have authorized the hiring of each and every one of them. How much does this cost the taxpayer on an annual basis? And why is so much executive administration necessary when enrollment both in terms of students and credit hours has been in decline for years?

Trustees are tasked with setting the strategic direction of an organization, aligning it with its mission and long-term goals. When oversight is lacking, decisions may be made without a clear understanding of the organization’s core values and objectives. This can result in misguided initiatives, wasted resources, and a loss of competitive edge in an ever-evolving landscape.

WCC has an extremely low graduation rate, and its enrollment is declining. There is little in the way of viable strategy to introduce new high-wage, high demand programs that will attract local students. The average income of a WCC grad doesn’t qualify as a living wage in Washtenaw County. Inexplicably, WCC offers deeply discounted online tuition to out-of-district and out-of-state students while up-charging residents for the same classes. No one has successfully answered the question of why Washtenaw County residents are subsidizing the tuition costs of non-residents who will never set foot in Washtenaw County.

A fundamental responsibility of trustees is to assess and mitigate risks that the organization may face. Without diligent oversight, critical risks can go unnoticed or be downplayed, leaving the organization vulnerable to unforeseen challenges. This can range from cybersecurity threats to market shifts, potentially leading to catastrophic consequences for the organization and its stakeholders.

College focus must be on students and student outcomes

The Health and Fitness Center is a prime example of this. The building has cost millions more than the initial price tag, and the College still owes millions more on the remaining bonds. The construction was low quality, which increases the cost of ordinary maintenance and capital investments needed to keep the building safe and operable. The user fees don’t cover the costs of these expenses, and COVID-19 related closures and accommodations have caused millions of dollars in operating losses. The Trustees never demanded a business plan, or an exit strategy for this building. As a result, the College is diverting millions of dollars from operating funds to keep this boondoggle running. And there’s no end in sight.

The WCC Board of Trustees claims to be an “advisory board.” That’s a ridiculous statement on its face because it fully ignores the Trustees’ explicit fiduciary responsibilities to the taxpayers. Based on the condition of the College, I think the Board owes all Washtenaw County residents a clear explanation of the advice they’ve been providing and the outrageously expensive decisions they’ve signed off on.

Photo Credit: KenC1983