A Target for Tea Partiers

As anti-tax sentiment simmers, community college officials worry that emerging groups will threaten their funding.
February 25, 2010

As if the recession had not given community college advocates enough to worry about, some fear that the anti-tax sentiment stirred by Tea Party activists could endanger their federal, state and local funding.

One Tea Party group in New Jersey is questioning Warren County Community College’s plans to open a satellite campus, meant to accommodate the institution’s burgeoning enrollment in outlying areas and free up space on its main campus. As required by New Jersey law, half of the $7.3 million bond to buy and renovate a commercial building for the new campus would be paid from an existing pool of state funds. The remainder, officials say, would be paid for by leasing additional space in the renovated building to interested tenants.

Though the plan for the new facility would not raise taxes or pass along any extra costs to area residents, some activists are still questioning the move, arguing that the college should simply expand its existing campus and that outlying students should make the drive if they want to attend classes.

Money “doesn’t grow on trees,” John Clemmer, founder of the Warren County NJ Tea Party Patriots, told The Express-Times, a local newspaper.“We don’t print money. It’s our money, no matter what you’re talking about doing.”

The argument in New Jersey has some national community college leaders taking notice of the Tea Party’s potential impact on community college funding -- although dealing with anti-tax groups and advocates for restricted government spending is not a new task for many educators.

“The Tea Party is doing what many taxpayers’ associations have done in the past, questioning every use of taxpayers’ dollars” said George Boggs, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. “When I was a [community college] president in California, there were always taxpayers’ groups questioning the approval of bonds and other measures. They wanted to be convinced that these projects were worth it, wondering if sufficient numbers of students would be served by expansion and if it would help the local economy.”

In campaigns for bond referendums as president of Palomar Community College, Boggs said, he often reached out to taxpayer watchdog groups, offering economic impact data and other statistics to win their confidence that the spending was worthwhile. He encouraged community college officials and Tea Party activists to take a similar approach if their thoughts differ on education and facilities spending.

“The anti-tax movement has become more prominent nationally, as many states are trying to close gaps in their budgets,” Boggs said. “There are two ways to do this: one is to reduce spending, and the other is to raise taxes. The latter has caused groups like the Tea Party to oppose taxes, and they are usually more in favor of cutting services. I just hope, as states work through these budget shortfalls, they are able to preserve the right kinds of services.”

Other community college scholars agree that managing the anti-tax movement and combating public misunderstandings about two-year institutions are parts of a continuing battle that predates the emergence of the Tea Party movement.

“There’s a lack of a coherent level of understanding about the levels of funding community colleges receive and the value of these institutions,” said Davis Jenkins, a senior researcher at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “It threatens cuts at all levels. We need to highlight these institutions and what they mean for people locally and for the economy.”

Many community colleges are funded primarily by tuition dollars, alongside supplemental state appropriations and local property tax levies. But in some states, like California, community colleges are precluded from taxing their district residents and rely solely on state funding, which has dwindled in many states amid the financial crisis.

As for the Tea Party’s potential impact on the two-year sector, some leaders note that recent history has in fact seen strong public support for their institutions.

“While it might be easy to assume that [community college] tax referenda, etc., get caught up in the general resistance to new taxes or increased taxes, this is not always the case,” wrote J. Noah Brown, president of the Association of Community College Trustees, in an e-mail. “Many [community colleges] have successfully won bond referenda and millage increases, even in tough economic times.”


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