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College looks to legislature to relieve students of building debt.

WELLS, Maine -- Educators at York County Community College are hoping that the current session of the Maine legislature will finally free them of a funding formula that has worked against increasing student enrollments.

"One way or the other, it is going to be a challenge, but we think it is a challenge worth pursuing," John Rainone, dean of institutional advancement at YCCC, said, referring to a building and financing fee that has added, on average, some $900 to the annual tuition paid by students at the two-year school.

That fee is a result of a unique funding arrangement signed off on nearly a decade ago by Maine's community college system that allowed the school to pay for the construction of a new 77,000-square-foot center housing its classrooms, laboratories and offices. Up until then, says Maine Senator Mary Andrews, a long-time supporter of the school, "they were meeting at a local motel that had some large conference rooms."

"That was our temporary headquarters for our first 2 1/2 years," notes Rainone, "but we knew that with the early growth we were experiencing we would never realize our potential until we had our own building."

That potential was realized in 1997 when construction was completed on the school's first permanent facility, located on 84 acres of woodland. To pay for the building, YCCC took out a loan for $5.2 million.

But because the state failed to commit to the project, YCCC officials turned to the school's students to help pay off the loan used to construct the facility, tacking on what they called a "building and financing fee" that has reduced that $5.2 million obligation to some $3.6 million today.

But now, says Sen. Andrews, Maine is the beneficiary of what she calls "unanticipated revenues" that could be applied to the school's building debt. "Basically more came into our state coffers last year than was anticipated, which most of us are looking at as 'one-time' money," explains Andrews. "And the result of that is that some lawmakers feel that this money should not be used for ongoing programs, but rather for something special. And certainly paying off the mortgage of this school, which has been, up until now, the obligation of the students, seems like a pretty good use of one-time money."

How community colleges pay for capital costs is a matter that varies from state to state: in California, as a result of Proposition 47, which was passed in 2002, general obligation bonds for both construction and the modernization of all educational facilities in the state are used to fund community college projects.

North Carolina funds much of its community college construction and renovation work through sales taxes passed at the county level, although by state law, community colleges only get a portion of that money.

In Oregon local residents can vote up or down on bond measures specifically geared for community college construction and renovation projects, but even if passed, those measures must win final approval from the state's legislature.

In Maine, state lawmakers have traditionally been willing to support both construction as well as the operating costs of the state's seven community colleges. The building of YCCC's central facility simply came about at a bad time, says Dean Rainone.

"They were willing to pay for our operating costs, but not much beyond that, which is why we were forced to turn to our students for help."

That help has obviously been plentiful, amounting to more than $1.6 million in the past nine years. Meanwhile, the school's student enrollment, despite the building and financing tee, has grown from 156 in 1995 to just under 1,000 today. "And we serve another 1,200 to 1,500 in the non-credit professional workforce development side per year," Rainone said.

If the Maine legislature decides to help YCCC retire its building debt, Rainone said, "we would then be able to lower the overall costs to our students, which means that if there ever are any additional fees in the future that have to be charged, those fees would come back as true revenue to the operations of the college, allowing us to put that kind of revenue back into increased services for the students."
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Title Annotation:the money tree
Author:Boulard, Garry
Publication:Community College Week
Date:Jan 30, 2006
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