New Front in Florida's Budget Wars

September 13, 2007

In Florida, where budget shortfalls are hitting higher education particularly hard, the public universities are going to battle with the Legislature over the power to raise tuition and freeze freshman enrollment.

Community colleges have stayed out of the ring so far, but not because they won't be affected. In a widely expected move, Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, proposed last week to reduce their state funding by at least 4 percent, or about $43.5 million, at a time when enrollments increased some 7.2 percent across 28 campuses this fall.

But where the 11-campus public university system has been asserting itself under the guise of the Florida Board of Governors, the community colleges -- which are under the authority of the state Board of Education -- have been without a chancellor since July.

"We have the same issues that the universities have with the budget cuts, but we’ve had nobody to speak up for us," said E. Ann McGee, the president of Seminole Community College.

Their options are currently limited by the governor's veto earlier this year of any tuition increases for public universities and community colleges, which effectively threw out a 5-percent rise passed by the Legislature. The state budget covers 66 percent of community colleges' funding, and "if the cut starts to approximate 10 percent, you're talking about shutting programs and releasing people," said McGee, who implied that the lost tuition increase combined with the budget cuts could approach that significant an impact.

The cuts -- a direct result of the housing downturn that has hit Florida particularly hard, producing a broader economic slump and lower-than-expected tax revenues -- are also colliding with a fact of life at community colleges: Their enrollments are counter-cyclical. When the economy is humming, people work and enrollments flatten. But "when the economy softens ... that’s right at the time that the state says, sorry, but we don’t have any money to support you," McGee said.

At Seminole this fall, enrollment is up 10 percent. Indian River Community College saw an 11-percent increase. But, unlike K-12 education and universities, the colleges aren't forward-funded to predict increases; allocations are based on a rolling average of the previous three years' enrollments.

Community college leaders only expect the problem to get worse after the Board of Governors' vote, despite the Legislature's opposition, to freeze freshman enrollment at four-year universities at this fall's level in the spring. As the number of new high school graduates increases and the number of public university slots remains the same, two-year colleges may be the only choice left for some students. The rapidly-growing university system had a total enrollment of 282,134 in 2005.

The impact at different colleges varies. The budget shortfall has already led to layoffs at Florida Community College at Jacksonville. At Seminole, McGee said she wasn't sure if she would be able to open a new campus being built to double nursing enrollment.

"People who are out of work who then are coming back to community colleges to either train or retrain, they see us as their way back into the job market," McGee said. "Cutting our budgets and cutting off enrollment for those students just doesn’t make any sense."

Meanwhile, the colleges will do what they always do in a budget crunch: cut administrative costs, siphon as much funding into the classroom as possible and put a freeze on full-time hires. The colleges will also rely more heavily on instructors to teach additional courses and hire adjuncts to take on more students, according to Edwin R. Massey, president of Indian River Community College and the chairman of the Florida Community College Council of Presidents' Policy and Advocacy Committee.

The colleges are already short on instructors, said Tom Auxter, president of the United Faculty of Florida union and a professor of philosophy at the University of Florida. "Our community colleges have been growing rapidly as the Florida population has been growing rapidly, but the appointment of faculty members has not been keeping up with the growth of students," he said. Auxter pointed out that instructors might have to teach subjects they didn't specialize in, and that "to pack them in like this ... when things are already tight, creates damage that’s not within an acceptable level."

For its part, the community college system is lobbying the governor and the Legislature to seek alternative sources of funding. "Our main thrust is to provide access, so we’re working with them to lobby for taking non-recurring dollars and buying out the tuition losses that we experienced due to the veto of our tuition," Massey said, essentially asking lawmakers to tap a portion of Florida's budget as a one-time expense to cover the expected 5-percent tuition increase. Anticipating cuts, the Council of Presidents passed a unanimous resolution in July, additionally committing them "not to cap enrollment at any of our 28 community colleges" and remain open to students affected by the university enrollment freeze.

The Florida Department of Education submitted a requested budget reduction plan that suggests administrative costs and programs with indirect impact on students as the priority for the cuts, including, for example, distance learning. But the impact of the cuts would probably be more complicated because of the way funding is allocated to the community college system, in a lump sum. The system uses a complex, agreed-upon formula intended to distribute the state allocation equitably, according to factors such as college size, the mix of programs, class size and technology, Massey said. The colleges' preference is that the cuts be distributed by the same formula.

The Legislature's planned September 18 special session to discuss the budget has been delayed until October or November while lawmakers and the governor plan how to address an unexpected $1 billion hole in the state budget.

The governor's office did not respond to multiple calls for comment.

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