Cincinnati State tightens its belt in wake of enrollment dip and state funding cut

CINCINNATI – Shrinking enrollment and a drop in state funding are prompting sizeable cuts at Cincinnati State, as leaders try to fill a $3.6 million hole in the budget.

President O'dell Owens and the board of trustees are balancing the shrunken budget with a 2.3 percent tuition increase for most students, by slashing the budget for adjunct instructors by $1.1 million, eliminating 13 jobs and putting off millions of dollars in scheduled maintenance.

Owens attributes the budget problems to a convergence of factors:

• Growing economy: As the job market improves, more people opt for immediate employment rather than investing in an associate's degree. "Community colleges are very sensitive to the economy. We've seen a decline in people who already have higher degrees coming to retool in a new field, too," Owens said.

• Less state funding: Cincinnati State expects state funding to drop more than $400,000 to $28 million. That's due largely to a change in the formula that determines how big a piece of the pie each college receives, coupled with the college's transition to semesters from five annual sessions. Two years ago, 90 percent of state funding was determined by enrollment. This fall's formula includes course-completion rates and a long list of milestones.

• Fewer high school graduates: A long-projected dip in the college-age population is in full swing. Cincinnati State is competing for fewer students along with everyone else.

Fall semester enrollment is down 11 percent compared to a year ago, a gap that administrators are working to narrow this summer and throughout the year.

"We're going through a real cultural shift," Owens said. "We've put so much emphasis on the first semester in the past.  Now we're going to put that same intense focus on each of the three semesters."

He expects the gap to narrow or close in the fall when the number of high school students who are dual-enrolled in Cincinnati State classes is determined. The number of dual-enrollment students has increased from 10 in 2010 to more than 1,000 last year, Owens said, part of a concerted effort to expand the college's reach into high schools. A thrifty path to a four-year degree from University of Cincinnati and other universities has emerged involving taking college credit courses for free in high school; courses toward an associate degree at Cincinnati State; and finishing a bachelor's at a four-year institution.

The board, which approved the new budget on July 22, added a financial incentive for students. Beginning this fall, tuition will freeze at this year's rate for those who commit to completing 12 credit hours per semester and complete their degrees within three years.

Smaller Staff

Estimates for last fiscal year, which ended June 30, weren't conservative enough, with actual class enrollment down 4 percent. That trend is expected to continue, prompting the board to slash the budget for adjunct teachers by $1.1 million to $7.2 million. The board also eliminated 13 full-time positions among faculty, administration and staff.

That will bring the total number of vacant, unfunded faculty jobs on the books to 43. The college has budgeted 469 full-time jobs at its main campus and 24 at its Middletown campus.

Michael Geoghegan, vice president of finance and treasurer, said the actual number of adjunct job reductions will be determined on a case-by-case basis as the school year proceeds. Whether any of the 13 full-time jobs will involve layoffs will be determined by how many faculty members opt to retire or leave for other reasons, he said.

Board rejects contract recommendations for clerical and staff workers

Already-protracted negotiations between Cincinnati State and the union representing 146 clerical, technical, and support staff have no end in sight after the board of trustees rejected a state-appointed fact-finders recommendations on how to resolve differences between the two sides.

The vote against the recommendations will prompt a resumption of negotiations after a standard cooling-off period, to the chagrin of union representatives.

“We were shocked and appalled by the decision of the board to reject the fact-finding report and to turn back the clock on decades of cooperation and collaboration between staff and management," said Dawn Wilkie, union chapter president.

The union said in a release that disputes that were turned over to a fact-finder "have been overwhelmingly supported by the Board of Trustees."

Cincinnati State's current financial position – it had to fill a $3.6 million budget gap for the new fiscal year – made the terms unworkable, according to President O'dell Owens.

“Concerns about the financial and operational ramifications of the fact finder’s recommendations were behind the decision to reject it,” he said.

In a statement released after the vote, board chair Cathy Crain said the board's desire to reach an agreement was trumped by the details of the recommendations. "The fact finder report contained recommendations that the college believes are not in the college’s best interests both from a financial perspective and from the perspective of improving efficiency of operations in order to better serve students.”

SEIU Chapter 1199's contract expired in 2013. A tentative contract hashed out in December 2013 was narrowly rejected by union members 53-51, according to the fact finder's report.

The fact finder recommended compromise positions on major issues like wages and health insurance, as well as secondary disputes like job training budgets. On wages, Mary Laurent, the State Employment Relations Board member appointed to the case, recommended 2 percent raises in each of the three years of the contract. That was in contrast to the college's proposal for 2 percent increases in the first two years and none in the final year of the contract.

 

Part of a $13 million backlog in deferred maintenance will remain unfunded, including work to improve heating and air conditioning systems. Officials plan to focus scarce dollars on safety issues like improved lighting in garages and outdoor areas.

Shrinking revenue prompted the college to sell some of its investments, leading to Geoghegan to estimate a $50,000 drop in investment income in the coming year.

Cathy Crain, chair of the board, cautioned that drawing down assets has to stop.

"These are not good trends. We cannot keep using our cash reserves. We need to look at every single program (for additional spending cuts)," she said.

Crain said that the temporary setbacks can be overcome by the aggressive push by Owens and other administrators to find new sources of cash flow in expanded online course offerings, dual enrollment programs and workforce development.

"We've gone through a difficult transition, particularly when you're transitioning to semesters and a new funding model from the state," she said. "We're blessed with a very strong administration and excellent faculty, and we will be successful."

Middletown Is Bright Spot

The success of Cincinnati State's Middletown campus, which opened two years ago, is helping to soften the blow of cuts at the main campus, with classes expected to grow 20 percent this year. 

"We feel like we're just really getting started up there," Geoghegan said of the Middletown venture. He anticipates  tuition revenues there will grow to $2.63 million from $2.18 million last year.

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