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Business and industry worried about what legislators might do

Community college cuts threaten training

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of stories examining proposed cuts to Mississippi community college workforce training programs and the subsequent impact on the state’s economy.

A proposed budget cut of nearly $40 million to community colleges would almost entirely eliminate workforce training funds and would leave existing industries vulnerable to low-skilled labor as Nissan skims the best workers in the coming years, say concerned educators.

“If the cuts remain as proposed, it will be a devastating blow to workforce training,” said Dr. Howell Garner, president of Copiah-Lincoln Community College, which would see its budget slashed $1.42 million.

According to the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, the 20% cut proposed by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee for FY2002 would include $8.4 million in administrative costs, and $31.4 million in community and junior college support. Of that amount, nearly $24.2 million would come from general fund sources.

“What’s important about the state board money is that nearly $8 million would go to workforce education projects — money needed to train people all over the state through the workforce program,” said Dr. Olon Ray, executive director of the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges.

About $1 million would affect staffing at the state board level, Ray said.

“Of 42 authorized positions, 16 would be affected by the cuts,” he said. “Of the 16 positions, 12 are currently filled. We’re already understaffed, and that’s not some sort of bureaucratic administrative complaining. We have intentionally kept our staff very slim. We work hard, and it’s going to be devastating to the operation of this board and to the workforce education efforts in this state if we lose these critical positions.”

Last year, lawmakers threatened to cut community college funds by $17.7 million, representing a 45% reduction in funding for workforce education centers.

“The end result was $6.5 million in losses, part of which was workforce training,” Ray said.

Even though the situation looks grim, the bottom line could look worse.

“LBO (Legislative Budget Office) projections were for a 3.7% growth, and it’s likely that there will not be that much growth,” he said.

Deborah J. Gilbert, associate executive director for finance and administration for the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, said community colleges have been hard hit because of the nature of its funding source.

“Our funding for workforce training since 1994, when the Workforce Education Act passed, has been ending cash, which went into an education enhancement fund,” she said. “Because of optimistic projections, offset by an actual income lower than anticipated, there has been no cash balance. Fourteen million dollars in losses is due to that.”

Dr. Clyde Muse, president of Hinds Community College, which stands to lose $4.46 million, an 18% decrease over FY2001, said the school recently adjusted to last year’s $1.6-million budget cut. Approximately 35,000 of the state’s 139,681 workforce trainees in FY2000 attended Hinds, Mississippi’s second-largest college according to enrollment statistics.

“A cut that deep would be very difficult to sustain,” he said. “The state provides about 60% of our budget, and that would represent a 20% cut in state funding in one year.”

The Nissan factor

During the one-day special session called by Governor Ronnie Musgrove in November, lawmakers approved $80 million for job training as part of the $295-million bill that helped Mississippi land a $930-million Nissan plant in Madison County. The automotive plant is expected to generate 4,000 jobs, with as many as 30,000 jobs in supporting industries. The plant is slated to open in mid-2003.

Nissan’s training fund, which also includes money for training equipment and facilities, are derived from a separate source and will not be affected by the proposed cuts, Ray said.

Nancy Alley, director of workforce education for the State Board for Community and Junior Colleges, said community colleges, through workforce training centers, will provide pre-employment training for Nissan in industrial maintenance areas and will provide several production training activities over a three-year period.

“A portion of the money will flow through us for training, but we don’t have an amount yet because we’re in the preliminary stages of developing course content, and the industrial pre-employment training is a year to 18 months down the road,” she said.

Gilbert, who attended the Dec. 20 JLBC meeting, said there was a lot of talk about “the vacuum to be filled when Nissan takes other workers away” and discussion about “other funding sources.”

Possible funding sources

Muse said possible strategies to offset the cuts include a tuition hike, a hiring freeze, increased county support and a reduction in educational equipment, supplies, material and travel.

“The last thing would be to reduce salaries and personnel, but that would be about the only way we could adjust,” he said.

Garner said Co-Lin has already raised tuition from $500 to $600 per semester for each student, and increased part time fees from $60 to $75 per semester hour.

“Dorm fees are being raised $75 per semester,” he said. “We’re asking counties for additional money. We’re cutting back on supplies and travel, which we’ve cut for the last two years, and which only amounts to 6.5% of the budget. The equipment budget has been almost completely cut out, except for technology, and we had to instigate a technologies fee to cover that. We’ve frozen positions and had to look closely at whether or not to fill retired positions. We don’t want layoffs. But when you realize that 75% of our budget is dedicated to salaries, while other services, such as gas and electricity have gone up, there’s not much left to cut.”

Dr. Tommy Davis, president of East Mississippi Community College, which stands to lose $1.04 million, a 17% cut over FY2001, said even though community college leaders are committed to meeting the needs of industry through workforce training, “there’s not much we can do with more demand and less funding.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com or (601) 853-3967.


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