RALEIGH — Community college leaders expressed alarm Thursday over a recommendation to consolidate smaller community colleges with larger ones to save money.
Board members, presidents, trustees and administrators sounded a chorus against the idea put forward last month in an analysis by the legislature's Program Evaluation Division. The report suggested reducing the number of small community colleges through 15 mergers involving 22 colleges to save an estimated $5.1 million a year.
That $5 million is the equivalent of one position at each of the 58 community colleges, or four-hundredths of 1 percent of the $1.3 billion state budget for the system, said Kennon Briggs, executive vice president and chief of staff.
That amount of savings is not worth transforming the system and eroding local support around North Carolina, said Scott Ralls, president of the system.
"Community colleges are much more than places where classes take place," he said. "They're the hubs of leadership; they're the beacons of economic hope, and they're the catalyst for things happening in many communities where they don't see a lot of things positive happening. To take that out of our communities at this point in time for $5.1 million ... doesn't make a lot of sense."
This week, a legislative panel forwarded the proposal to an education oversight committee for further review. Members said the consolidation idea merited a serious look.
Rep. David Lewis, a Dunn Republican, said there was "premature angst" about the issue. Combining the administrative staffs of colleges could allow the state to educate more students, he said.
"I think the people of North Carolina are proud of their community college system," he said. "They feel that way because it provides a valuable service in educating the public. I don't think there's much concern over whether the community college president lives in their county or town."
The report said colleges with fewer than 3,000 students are inefficient. Across the state, costs range from $447 to $1,679 per student at various colleges, depending on their size.
The report recommended that smaller colleges be combined with larger ones to save on administrative costs, so that there would be only one president's salary, one business office, one financial aid office for two sites.
"Sometimes bigger is simply better, and bigger is more efficient," Lewis said. "That's what our research has shown."
Loss of local support?
Community colleges are funded with state, federal and local money. But local elected officials will be much less likely to support a college if it is merged with the county next door, said Lyn Austin, chairwoman of Johnston Community College.
"When they talk about merging, or consolidating or restructuring," she said, "what you're doing is changing the heart of what makes this system work."
Joanne Steiner, a board member from Wake Forest, said the savings would not be worth hurting small counties that struggle to attract jobs.
"What does this do to rural economic development? That is just absurd," she said.
Mary Kirk, president of Montgomery Community College, said she's already heard local donors grumble. Montgomery is on the list for possible consolidation.
Some questioned whether the mergers themselves would be as costly as the eventual savings.
Ralls said the process would take time and money in planning, reaccreditation, technology and legal conversion of private foundations connected to the local colleges.
Focus on efficiency
The system is "laser-focused" on efficiency and has been throughout an enormous enrollment surge during the economic recession, he said.
"We could not have taken on 28 percent more students in three years with 21 percent less per student funding coming from general fund sources if we weren't paying attention to efficiency," he added.
The merger is a long way from happening, though. And despite support from several lawmakers this week, Senate leader Phil Berger said Thursday that he thinks consolidation is a bad idea.
"I am concerned about any proposal that would take the administrative control and the lead personnel of a community college out of that community," said Berger, an Eden Republican. "I don't think that model fits what we in North Carolina have come to understand as our community colleges. That's my position on it."
How this all started
The 2009 budget bill, passed under the leadership of Democrats, directed the legislature's Program Evaluation Division to study efficiencies for the community college system.
The report, released in June, also recommended that the colleges join forces to save money on purchasing - something that has the support of system leaders.
Lewis, the lawmaker, said the report kicked off a worthwhile discussion. "I think it's certainly a good start," he said of the findings.
"Honestly, I think the report didn't go far enough," Lewis said, adding that colleges could also share academic deans, vice presidents and other staff.
College leaders said their strategy will be to activate county commissioners, business leaders, mayors and students to fight the merger proposal.
"Ours is a system not of franchises around the state. Ours is a system of community colleges where community is the most important word in our name," Ralls said.
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