Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie file photo
Joe Luchene pitches an idea at the April Board of Regents meeting before a vote on a tuition increase (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT – A much debated – and by some criticized – plan to restructure the state’s community colleges is due for a vote by the Board of Regents this Thursday.

Under the plan, Connecticut State Colleges and Universities President Mark Ojakian would fold the state’s 12 community colleges into one mega college, placing the system under a single Chancellor in Hartford and consolidating certain administrative functions there. The plan would see the system shed 190 positions by 2021.

In April, the Board of Regents adopted Ojakian’s framework for both tuition increases and savings from the future administrative consolidations.

About 90,000 students attend the 17 schools in the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system. This past April the Board of Regents approved a plan that increased tuition 4 percent at the four regional state universities, 2.5 percent at the 12 community colleges and 4 percent at the online Charter Oak College. It also approved a series of student fee hikes.

All told those tuition and fee increases are expected to bring in about $21 million, but that’s only about half of the college system’s projected deficit.

It is the other part of Ojakian’s plan – to consolidate operations to save $28 million –  that received most of the audience’s ire at the board meeting in April, though many criticized the planned tuition increases too.

Besides the $28 million in savings from consolidating high level positions, such as individual college presidents, Ojakian also hopes to consolidate services for another $13 million in savings, and get the system back in the black by 2019.

Even with the savings from the consolidation the system will be facing a $13.2 million deficit in fiscal year 2019, according to an analysis presented to the Board of Regents.

If the board approves the plan on Thursday the layoffs wouldn’t be able to occur until 2021 because the State Employees Bargaining Agent Coalition agreement provided a four year no-layoff clause for all unionized state employees.

All campuses would remain open under the plan, but it would operate with 190 fewer staff.

But the governing body of the 4,000-member Congress of Connecticut Community Colleges (4Cs), a community college union, overwhelmingly voted to urge the regents to reject the plan.

“The restructuring plan offers a pie-in-the-sky, hoped-for $28 million in savings that ostensibly puts students first,” Lorraine Li, business professor at Gateway Community College in New Haven, said. “But, if you study the recommendations, it puts finance first and leaves students in its wake.”

Even the accrediting body for the state’s colleges, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), questioned the benefits to students, Li said.

When Ojakian asked NEASC for an “advisory opinion” on the proposed consolidation, NEASC Chairman Davis P. Angel remarked that “materials submitted to date have been very clear on the financial reasons for the proposed change,” but are “less clear on a rationale tied more directly to the mission of the colleges. [We] seek further information about how this will be accomplished through the proposed merger.”

“While the plan charges ahead with consolidations and cost-cutting, it overlooks some serious potential financial losses and student hardships,” Ramon Esponda, a part-time faculty member at Gateway, said. “As community colleges become branch campuses, federal and state grants could be at risk,” he said.

For example, federal grants for Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs— colleges where Hispanic students comprise at least 25 percent of the undergraduate full-time student body— would be put at risk, according to Esponda.

“Grants are available to expand educational opportunities for Hispanic students and enable HSIs to expand and enhance their academic offerings, program quality, and institutional stability.”

Currently, three community colleges have become Hispanic-serving Institutions, while another four are approaching HSI status with their growing Hispanic student populations.

“The impact of restructuring on these and other grant-funded programs is far too important to leave to chance,” he said.

Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie file photo
Board of Regents in April (Jack Kramer / ctnewsjunkie file photo)

Also missing is an assessment of the impact these changes would have on each community college’s foundation, a separate organization created to help each college’s students beyond what’s available through Pell grants and other forms of aid.  The foundations are governed by local community, business leaders, college faculty and staff.

“Often, foundation aid is all that stands between a student’s success or failure,” William Foster III, English professor at Naugatuck Valley Community College, said. “Its impact on students’ lives is too important to become a consolidation afterthought. The continued effectiveness of community college foundations should be a going-in requirement of any consolidation plan. We don’t see that here.”

Li said the regents are “being presented with a Draconian cost-cutting recommendation in a fuzzy educational-improvement wrapper that raises more questions than it answers.”

The union is urging the Board of Regents to reject the proposal.

“Unless this is done,” she said, “the state’s residents, business community and students will be saddled with a bargain they can’t afford.”

Back in May Ojakian told critics of the planned consolidation that, “We need to be realistic about what financial condition of the state is.”

That financial condition has become more clear as the state’s budget is again in deficit.

Ojakian warned that if they don’t implement the proposal the colleges will have a $21 million deficit by 2020. That deficit will grow to more than $100 million by 2022.

“Slowing the consolidation only worsens our fiscal circumstances,” Ojakian said in a Dec. 4 letter to the system. “We need to find savings quickly in order to stop the erosion of student services and the colleges’ limited reserves. If we do not implement our plan, we would be faced considering significant tuition increases. I will not put the burden of balancing our budget on our students when there are other options before us.”

Ojakian closed the letter by stating that “Moving forward, our community colleges will play an even bigger role in higher education and preparing students to pursue their dreams and careers. That’s why this restructuring is so critical to the future of our students, our institutions and our state.”

The Board of Regents will meet to vote on the plan at 10 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 14, at 61 Woodland Street, Hartford.