Crisis Deepens At ECC: Another Tuition Hike Seen As Inevitable

By Tony Farina

Erie Community College is facing a bleak financial future for many reasons, not the least of which is the unauthorized pay increases and bonuses to senior staff over the last several years –and the creation of 10 senior executive positions–without the required written approval of the board of trustees as cited in the recent highly critical state audit report, decisions that surely took a toll on the budget.

The high-paid staff aside, enrollment has been steadily declining and the county and the state are not contributing their fair share under the community college formula. . New York’s per-student state aid to community colleges is 20 percent lower than the national average, according to Henrik Dullea, a member of the State University Board of Trustees who spoke to the Buffalo News this week.  And Erie County’s contribution is about $10 million below the formula mark.

All of the above combines to form the perfect storm for a college awash in red ink that without significant increases in per-student aid (unlikely) in the new state budget due Friday, April 1, will mean more belt tightening and more red ink.  ECC President Jack Quinn, who is paid $192,500 to lead the college, is warning the roof is about to collapse.  In short, ECC will likely have to raise tuition for the third straight year, putting the crisis squarely on the back of students.

Quinn told trustees last week “we’re going to find ourselves in a position of having to make some difficult decisions, which include every aspect of the college.  This is going to take three or four or five different ways to tackle this.  We can’t just go to fund balance or to a tuition increase.”

According to Quinn, ECC needs a $125 increase in per-student aid to break even, and that doesn’t appear likely in a budget that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed which includes no increase and the legislature, as of press time, was still haggling over the number.

Steve Boyd, chairman of the ECC Board of Trustees, tells Artvoice “our process is to hold three finance committee meetings to brief interested trustees starting Tuesday (April 5).  These are the meetings where we discuss tuition, use of fund balance, and vacancy control to come up with next year’s budget.  Everything is on the table, including consideration of another early retirement buyout.”

Regarding another tuition hike, Boyd said “I think a tuition hike is likely.  I’m not aware of too many colleges across the country” that don’t have an expectation of some tuition hike every year.  

So it looks like tuition hikes at ECC have become the norm, and sources say an increase in the range of $250-$300 is likely.  That’s on top of the $300 increases each of the last two years.  And it comes this year in the wake of the scathing state audit that found Quinn was doing things his way in handing out bonuses and pay raises to his senior staff even as the school’s crisis was deepening.

Shortly after the state budget is finalized, the ECC trustees will meet, as Boyd said, to figure out what to do even as they are under the tightening screws of Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz who, according to our sources, is strongly opposed to ECC hiring another $125,000 legal affairs chief to replace the departed Kristin Klein Wheaton who took the fall for Quinn after the audit was made public.

At the legislature, Poloncarz’s request for another lawyer in the county attorney’s office is in committee, but Legislator Kevin Hardwick said everything is in play at this time as lawmakers wait to see the final numbers in the state budget and take a close look at the proposal due soon from the college.  Hardwick, who has taken a keen interest in the crisis at ECC and helped in settling the long stalled faculty union contract last year, said he and other lawmakers will certainly analyze the ECC budget proposal and look carefully at a number of positions, including the legal job that Poloncarz is against but ECC says it needs.

Sources say tensions are high at the college, and Quinn and company may be concerned about how to keep people in high-paying jobs as the burden on students continues to grow.  The staff, and 

Quinn, sources tell me, know that there are very hard decisions ahead and even the adjunct professors, who make up a growing class of teachers at ECC, are not happy with their treatment in the recent union contract agreement.

In Everybody’s Column in the Buffalo News this week Sharon Shackleford, an adjunct professor, wrote the county executive should forget about a $70,000 study on banning plastic garbage bags and pay county employees.  Here’s what she wrote:  “After six long years, the county recently settled the contract with our union, the FFECC, at Erie Community College.  In this new contract, the county has awarded raises to the faculty, however, for part-time professors, that raise amounted to a mere $150 per three-credit hour course, totaling $1,950 per course, well below most colleges in New York State.”  

Professor Shackelford is also unhappy that the settlement provided only full-time faculty retro pay for the six years there was no contract and no retro pay for part-time faculty.

The professor’s comments suggest that part-time faculty members at ECC, who comprise more than 40 percent of the teaching staff, are not very happy and as one observer said to me, “how much are they willing to give of themselves in a situation where they feel underpaid and unappreciated?  That’s not good for students who want teachers committed to giving their best.”

If there’s anybody happy at ECC, it is probably the senior staff and Quinn who have seen nothing change in their lives or their pay scale, only increases pushed through behind closed doors.  And Quinn continues to jog around the country on his outside gigs, some of which pay quite handsomely for the former congressman from Hamburg who, according to sources, is not going anywhere, at least on his own.  

Stay tuned, there’s more to come after the state pegs the student-aid number and ECC tries to find a way to cover the inevitable shortfall.  Quinn and crew had big plans but the money is now gone.  At least they are still getting paid their nice salaries no matter the crisis.