An email from College of DuPage president Robert Breuder

$20 Million Question

July 25, 2014

A careless email has cost one community college president $20 million, and potentially saved Illinois taxpayers that same amount.

The state of Illinois will not release capital funds previously appropriated to the College of DuPage after an email written by Robert Breuder, the college’s president, fueled charges that the institution was needlessly chasing public dollars.

A May 9 email Breuder wrote to the college’s board, obtained by the government watchdog group For the Good of Illinois through a Freedom of Information Act request, reveals the college president’s plan to pressure the state into releasing $20 million that it had appropriated years before but never spent.

There was one problem. The state had appropriated the money for projects that the 28,000-student college had already completed using its own funds.

To Breuder and his supporters, this story is about the unpredictability of state support and the need for scrappy community colleges to work every possible angle to get enough money to thrive. But to critics who have pounced on the situation, this is a story about a community college that was able to pay for projects itself, yet tried to grab every penny it could from taxpayers -- for the sake of luxury, not necessity.

The Elusive $20 Million

In 2002, George Ryan, then governor of Illinois, announced that he would spend $50 million a year for five years on renovating and replacing temporary buildings on the state’s community college campuses. DuPage was promised $25 million, Breuder said.

The plan lasted for three years instead of five. DuPage’s projects were among the $100 million worth of projects that ended up receiving no money.

“We never saw a dime,” Breuder said.

In 2009, the college had another chance. As part of the Illinois Jobs Now! plan, the state appropriated $25 million in capital funds to the college: the same amount promised to DuPage under the 2002 initiative, but never released. This money, too, would go to temporary facilities replacement.

Since 2010, Illinois has appropriated $24 to $25 million in each year’s budget for temporary facilities replacement at DuPage. But the state has allocated only a fraction of that money.

Roughly 18 months ago, Breuder said, the state earmarked $5 million for the demolition of old buildings on the DuPage campus. Some $20 million remained out of the college’s reach. And the initiative the money had been slated for – the demolition and replacement of buildings on the west side of campus – was “soon to be history,” Breuder wrote in his email.

“The projects we’re replacing, the buildings we’re replacing, have been changing because we can’t wait forever for the state to say, here’s your money for this particular building,” Breuder said in an interview. “[But] if you build … you’re shit out of luck.”

A Political Gamble

In May, the college president saw an opening. Governor Pat Quinn, who is up for re-election this November, would be speaking at the college’s commencement.

By publicly thanking the governor for his $20 million commitment to DuPage – money that had been appropriated but not released – perhaps the handout for which DuPage had been waiting for more than a decade would finally materialize, Breuder reasoned.

“When I introduce Governor Quinn at commencement, I want to help our cause (getting the $20 million released sooner rather than later) by thanking him for his commitment in front of 3,500 people,” Breuder wrote in his email to the trustees. “There are many voters in our District. Please keep November 4 in mind. The limited state dollars for capital projects will go somewhere in this heightened political season. Why not College of DuPage?”

But Breuder would have to identify a new project that the money would support. DuPage’s board had talked about building a $30 million teaching and learning center. Instead of a $30 million center, Breuder thought, why not a $50 million center?

“We have been working with the Governor’s Office (seemingly forever) to secure our $20 million,” Breuder wrote in the email. “My idea: a Teaching and Learning Center. Several board members want to weigh in on the need for such a facility. I have no problem with that; however, not being able to say how we would use the state’s money (perhaps no real need) could lessen our chances to break the money loose at this time (the political moon is rising).”

For the college to use the $20 million in this way – to fund a project the money wasn’t appropriated for – the Illinois legislature would likely have to change the appropriation language in the next year’s state budget, said Ellen Andres, chief financial officer of the Illinois Community College Board

DuPage, Illinois’s largest community college, genuinely needs additional classroom space, college officials said. But it didn’t hurt that “a building that focuses on teaching and learning is politically attractive,” as Breuder added in his message.

The college president said he cleared his remarks with the governor’s office before the commencement ceremony. But he didn’t get a chance to speak. Quinn left the event before Breuder could take the microphone.

And it seemed like that was it – DuPage might get the $20 million, or it might not, just like every year since 2010.

Then, in late June, Breuder’s all-too-candid email was made public, and a college president who had developed a reputation for being abrasive but efficient found himself embattled.

A ‘Memo of Frustration’

After the watchdog group For the Good of Illinois published Breuder’s email at the end of June, The Chicago Tribune ran a biting editorial that accused the college president of attempting “a seedy little money grab.” And the governor’s office released a statement calling the news regarding DuPage “extremely alarming.”

“To date, $5 million has been obligated toward the demolition of structures on the campus,” a spokesman for Gov. Quinn said in the statement. “No additional funding has been committed or approved by the state, and all future capital dollars have been suspended.”

In other words, DuPage is not getting its $20 million, at least not this year. Whether the legislature will continue to appropriate – or allocate – the $20 million in subsequent years remains to be seen.

Adam Andrzejewski, founder of For the Good of Illinois, filed the FOIA request. He said Breuder’s attempt to procure state funds by delivering political support for Quinn was “highly unethical, if not illegal.”

What’s more, Andrzejewski said, DuPage “never needed the dollars.”

“There are many ‘state promises’ that should never be fulfilled as Illinois is broke with billions in bills owed to vendors and retirees,” he said.

DuPage, meanwhile, has more than $180 million in savings, Breuder said.

Since Breuder arrived at DuPage in 2009, the college has undergone the largest construction project in its 44-year history. All its old buildings are gone. “Every building is either new or completely refurbished from the inside out,” Breuder said. The final cost of the six-year renovation effort will be close to $600 million.

DuPage's physical education center, renovated in 2013.

The teaching and learning center will be the college’s next major capital project. The project has been in the works since June 2013, when DuPage’s board of trustees unanimously approved plans for a $31 million center.

But Breuder wanted a bigger building – and he wanted the long-elusive $20 million broken loose. He wrote the email, which he called a “memo of frustration,” in an attempt to convince the trustees that the college had enough commitment from the state to plan a $50 million building instead of a $30 million building, he said.

“I have seven trustees saying: you want to build a $50 million building; where are the stone tablets that say you’re going to get the $20 million?” Breuder said. “I said we’ve been told by the governor’s office that the $20 million is committed to us and we’ll be getting it.”

The prospect of forfeiting $20 million in taxpayer dollars simply because the college had already finished the earlier construction project on its own struck Breuder as an injustice.

“I have a line item in the budget, and I can’t even get a dollar,” he said. “If there’s $25 million sitting there for a hundred years, or so it seems, why would I not go after that $25 million?”

DuPage, however, is hardly unique in failing to obtain state-appropriated funds. “Breuder’s not the only one waiting for his $25 million,” Andres said. “We have $102 million in community college projects that have been appropriated waiting to be released.”

Illinois has billions in public debt, which forces the state to prioritize among projects that have been appropriated state funds. Glenn Hansen, president of DuPage’s faculty association, said DuPage had been treated “like all the other community colleges” in the state.

DuPage’s initiative is one of 16 community college projects waiting on funding, Andres said.

“I think all the other colleges would approach these requests much differently,” said Karen Anderson, the Illinois Community College Board’s executive director. “It’s not a typical system approach.”

Breuder said the ire-attracting email “could have been written differently, and should have been except it was an internal memo.”

“I’m sure there are times when you sit down with your family at a table,” Breuder said. “If someone were recording or videotaping that, you might approach it differently.”

Political Fallout

The release of Breuder’s email has sharpened divisions between faculty and the administration. Infighting on DuPage’s board of trustees has also escalated.

The faculty association is considering a no-confidence vote. The faculty will not vote, however, until early September, to avoid the impression that a no-confidence measure is a “knee-jerk reaction” to Breuder’s email, Hansen said.

The college president shrugged off the prospect of a no-confidence vote. “It would not be my first one,” he said.

More worrisome for Breuder is his relationship with his trustees. He believes a trustee leaked the email to For the Good of Illinois.

“We saw this FOIA request, and I remarked to my colleagues … why specify a very defined period of time, a matter of days?” Breuder said. “How would that outside organization know about that email if it didn’t come from somebody on the board?”

The FOIA request was for two weeks' worth of presidential emails, and the college released nearly 2,600 pages of documents in response, Andrzejewski said. He said his group did not confirm or deny the existence of whistleblowers.

Breuder said political ambition motivated the trustee who he thinks made the tip-off.

“I think the person aspires for higher political office,” he said. “That trustee … has done nothing but try to find something wrong so they can get attention and that attention will convert into notoriety, recognition and then opportunity.”

The college president declined to identify which trustee he suspected. But DuPage’s board meeting minutes show that in late June, the plans for the $30 million teaching and learning center passed 6-1. Kathy Hamilton, the board’s vice chairman, cast the lone dissenting vote.

“I felt uncomfortable voting for a project that could be a $50 million project or a $30 million project,” she said. “When you have a variation that large, the need is not clear.”

Erin Birt, the chairman of DuPage’s board, said Hamilton’s vote “contradicted her previous actions.” At a May 22 board meeting, however, Hamilton expressed reservations about the project. Without a clear understanding of enrollment and the demographics that influence enrollment, the investment was risky, she said at the meeting.

Hamilton said in an interview she wanted to see a more rigorous analysis of how the teaching and learning center would meet DuPage’s needs. “I’m not saying we don’t need the building, but I’m saying let’s be intelligent about it,” she said.

In a statement sent on behalf of the board, Birt condemned Hamilton.

“Ms. Hamilton seems to have chosen to ignore the facts and act individually for what seems to be her own interests over the interests of the College,” Birt said. “It is unfortunate that political agendas may have caused the College to lose state funding as the funding would greatly assist us in developing a Teaching and Learning Center that addresses our students’ current and future needs.”

Hamilton wrote an editorial for the Illinois Review, a conservative publication, criticizing the plans for the teaching and learning center.

“I have been getting a tremendous outpouring from people on both sides of the aisle, Democrats and Republicans, supporting me,” she said. “When you’re there and you’re trying to send your children to school, and they’re busy making the Taj Mahal, that’s a problem.”

Breuder said the email-related controversy was “politics – it’s all this is.”

“It’s unfortunate that this got – I don’t want to say blown out of proportion – but it really is distorted,” he said.

Yet despite accusing his trustee of playing politics, Breuder admitted to doing the same.

“This is a political year in Illinois,” he said. “The reality is, I’ve lived long enough to know that in federal government and in state government money finds its way to places all the time. Certain times are more flowing than other times. I saw it as an opportunity for the governor to come in here and bring the $20 million which had been committed to us for years.”

Breuder said the college plans to move ahead with the $30 million building.

At a board meeting last Thursday, a dozen faculty, students and residents spoke out against Breuder and the board during the meeting's public comment portion. At the same meeting, Breuder proposed lowering tuition by $2 per credit hour, The Chicago Tribune reported.

For Andrzejewski, the furor at DuPage is merely one manifestation of a corrupt streak in Illinois politics.

“In Illinois, if anything happens for the good of the people, it’s entirely by accident,” he said. “All decisions are based on power and politics.”

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