Community colleges balk at merger plan

Associated PressJuly 1, 2011 

— North Carolina's community colleges could save about $5 million a year by folding administration and back-office work at the smallest campuses into larger neighbors, according to a legislative efficiency report released this week.

But campus leaders are balking at the proposal, saying $5 million a year in savings is small compared to the disruptions the mergers would cause.

"If the recommendation to consolidate colleges is implemented, it would devastate our rural communities," said Mary Kirk, president of the N.C. Association of Community College Presidents. "It is all they have. Our rural citizens would no longer have access to the same level of affordable education and training."

The General Assembly's program evaluation division reported that merging the administration at 15 of the smallest colleges into bigger campuses within 30 miles, and forming a purchasing cooperative to get volume discounts, would save nearly $30 million over six years.

No campuses at the country's third-largest system would close. The schools with fewer than 3,000 full-time students would lose their separate presidents, payroll departments and other administrative functions to the larger community colleges in the merger.

The report, released Tuesday, found that the smallest colleges cost about 50 percent more to operate than larger campuses.

Twenty of the state's 58 community colleges already run multiple campuses. In all, there are 162 campuses and off-campus satellite centers in 91 of the state's 100 counties.

Community college leaders should be directed to decide which 15 of the 22 smaller, rural colleges that could fit the profile for possible consolidation should be merged, said Catherine Moga Bryant, who wrote the report for lawmakers.

Efficiency touted

Kirk argued that the community colleges already are efficient, working with less funding but serving thousands more students than the University of North Carolina system, while also offering education to high school students and prison inmates. The colleges had the equivalent of about 244,000 full-time students this year after accounting for the many students who attend part time.

Community colleges are looking at many ways to become more efficient, never more so because of pending spending cuts, Community College System President Scott Ralls said. The state budget that will take effect today cuts about $115 million from the funding that would have maintained current service levels.

"I would hope that there may be several places state leaders would want to look first before tackling the costs, both tangible and intangible, that would come through such a drastic change," Ralls said in a written response. "The fact that only $5 million would be saved by consolidating 15 community colleges speaks directly to the lean nature of our colleges."

Kirk and Ralls said they agreed that community colleges should combine their purchasing power to get better prices for high-volume product purchases.

Members of a legislative committee that heard the merger proposal postponed any decision until they meet again next month.

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