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College chief decries budget

Silverman says Mt. Hood can't raise tuition again

Robert Silverman, president of Mt. Hood Community College in Gresham, has joined a chorus of Oregon community college leaders sharply criticizing funding levels proposed last week by legislative leaders.

Sen. Kurt Schrader, D-Canby, and Rep. Mary Nolan, D-Portland, co-chair the Joint Ways and Means Committee, and released a proposed state budget that allocates $458 million to the community colleges' support fund, $71 million less than the $529 million Oregon's community colleges want. The proposed allocation is also less than the $483 million in similar funding proposed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

'The amount of state support proposed by the co-chairs will have an adverse effect on (Mt. Hood's) ability in continuing to provide our students and our community the education needed for the careers of the future,' Silverman said in a Friday, March 23, statement.

However, in defense of the co-chairs' budget, Schrader provided a chart showing the proposed budget increasing the state's per-student funding from $2,384 in 2005-07 to $2,549 in 2007-09.

'We've tried to make sure that community colleges were well-funded,' Schrader said. 'This is the best budget they've ever had.'

Tuition versus enrollment

Silverman said his college has tried to keep down costs by such actions as cutting back on hiring, and closely evaluating whether it should fill positions that become vacant.

Meanwhile, Mt. Hood increased tuition rates over the past decade from $32 per credit hour in 1996 to $66 per credit hour now in order to help cover costs. Such tuition increases hurt enrollment, Silverman said, citing research stating that for every $1 increase in tuition rates, enrollment declines at community colleges by 0.87 percent. Mt. Hood's enrollment has declined from a peak of 31,003 in 1999-2000 to 23,850 for 2004-05, the school's Web site states.

While low-income students may be eligible for financial aid to offset tuition increases, middle- and lower middle-class students may choose to drop out from a community college rather than pay the increased tuition rate, Silverman said.

'In the past, we've had the option of raising tuition, but I don't think we have that option any more,' Silverman said.

Schrader, however, said the enrollment decline puts the colleges' funding request in a different light.

'Why would you complain about a pretty substantial (funding) increase when their enrollment is declining?' he said.

Nolan added that the proposed budget increases needs-based scholarship funding for university and community college students - including those enrolled part-time - by $47 million.

Nolan also said that the state has to balance the community colleges' interests against other educational interests, including those of its kindergarten-through-12th-grade system.

Portland Community College District President Preston Pulliams, who also released a statement criticizing the proposed budget, echoed Silverman's sentiments.

'Recent cuts have resulted in lost opportunity for thousands of Oregon students, and this new budget level doesn't begin to restore those losses,' he said.

Supply and demand

The Oregon Community College Association also sharply criticized the co-chairs' 'meager' budget. The association claimed that community colleges have been 'cutting budgets, eliminating programs and laying off employees for the last six years.' In a statement, Andrea Henderson, the association's executive director, condemned the proposed co-chairs' budget as shortsighted.

'Disinvesting in community colleges at this point in time makes about as much sense as ignoring the check engine light flashing on your dashboard,' she said.

Henderson cited state government research that projects Oregon will need to provide 650,000 new workers to fill new jobs as well as job vacancies statewide by 2014.

'We must start training now to ensure that Oregonians who want to work have the capacity to meet industry demands,' she said.

Kathryn Dysart, spokeswoman for the community colleges association, said the group was optimistic that legislators would come around to its view on the budget debate.

'We are very hopeful that we'll get an appropriation that's closer to our target number,' she said.

Like Henderson, she said the state's leaders must recognize the importance of investing in its community colleges so state residents can compete in the growing job market.

'If they want Oregonians to have those jobs, then we are the answer,' she said.

Nolan said that the co-chairs' proposal is based on available revenues, and that the community colleges don't have to balance the state budget as she and her colleagues must.

'It's their job to be ambitious,' she said of the community college advocates. 'But at the end of the day we can only write checks for as much as is in the state's checking account.'