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LCC is facing another budget crunch; cuts likely.

Byline: Greg Bolt The Register-Guard

Efforts to boost enrollment and find new sources of revenue have failed to shore up finances at Lane Community College, once again leaving the school with the prospect of a big shortfall in its budget.

LCC President Mary Spilde said it's not yet clear how deep the financial hole will be next year. But she said the problem is bad enough that the college will look for ways to shave spending for the remainder of the current year to help bridge the gap in the 2006-07 budget. Initial estimates suggest the shortfall next fiscal year could be $3 million to $5 million.

"We know that it's significant," Spilde said of the the shortfall. "Staff will be affected."

Whether that means layoffs and the elimination of instructional programs is something that college administrators, faculty and classified staff will wrestle with in coming months.

But 82 percent of its $69 million budget goes to payroll, so LCC will face difficult decisions as it prepares its spending plan for the coming year.

Sociology instructor Jim Salt, head of the faculty union, agreed that it's too early to know what steps will be necessary. But he said he and his colleagues will work with the administration through a new governance system to address the situation. He said cutting programs should be a last resort.

"The choices are not easy," he said. "I don't think there's some silver bullet that can come into play."

Like other community colleges in the state, LCC has been hammered by budget blows. The schools receive less state funding than they did five years ago. Past cuts combined with steep tuition hikes have reduced enrollment, and projected hikes in employee health care and retirement costs have boosted expenses.

Tuition hikes over the past several years have helped the college replace some of the lost state money, but Spilde doesn't believe students can afford any more. Lane now charges $67 per credit - the highest community college tuition in the state. It will increase that to $69.50 a credit next year, which amounts to an 83 percent increase since 2001-02.

That doesn't include a $3 per credit technology fee and other charges.

``We believe we've reached the threshold on tuition,'' she said. ``We have to look elsewhere.''

Enrollment at LCC just tops 11,000, down 20 percent from 2001. Much of that is due to the tuition hikes, which hit noncredit hobby and personal enrichment classes especially hard when the state stopped providing partial support for those courses.

The college has tried to improve its finances by working to increase enrollment and offer more services that generate revenue, such as renting the Center for Meeting and Learning for conferences.

But Spilde said enrollment, while rising for the first time in three years, fell short of the 4 percent goal this fall and rose 2.4 percent. Other efforts have not brought in enough money to significantly help the college's bottom line.

Spilde said it's too early to say whether entire programs will be cut and said she will first look for ways to streamline and automate administrative and general operations functions. But she said that whatever else is done, significant changes will be needed in the end.

``I'm not saying we're not going to cut programs,'' she said. "Something fundamentally has to change."

That puts the college back where it was in 2001-2003, when even sharp tuition hikes couldn't absorb the loss of state money and put the college through two years of contentious budget debates.

Ultimately, few entire programs were cut, but a number of professional-technical courses lost general fund support, meaning they had to cover all their costs through higher tuition, and the college made significant cuts in the number of sections offered in lower-division transfer courses taken by students on their way to a two-year or four-year degree.

It's unclear whether LCC can again avoid major program cuts. The problem is how to make cuts without sending the college into a downward spiral in which reduced offerings draw fewer students, which in turn reduces revenue and leads to more cuts.

Professional-technical programs - everything from welding and diesel mechanics to nursing and dental hygiene - offer the easiest way to save money because they cost much more to offer than they generate in tuition and state support.

But those programs also are at the heart of the community college mission, are a major avenue to better-paying jobs for students and serve a critical work force training need for the state's economy.

Lower-division transfer courses generate more revenue than they cost, helping subsidize the professional-technical courses.

Cutting those courses would result in a net loss, not savings.

Salt noted that past cuts led to lower enrollment and less state support, which is based on the number of full-time equivalent students, or FTE, enrolled. That's what makes program cuts a difficult way to balance the budget, he said.

"The state distribution formula is significantly based on student FTE, and we're getting less FTE today because of those cuts," he said. "I know Mary understands that, and we want to grow FTE, not shrink it. The challenge is how to grow FTE without increased, and perhaps decreased, funds."
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Title Annotation:Higher Education; The college president says tuition probably has gone as high as it reasonably can, meaning staff or programs may be lost
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jan 26, 2006
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