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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 1.18.07

How to Grow LCC

Internal factors are part of the problem

BY ROB SPOONER

Lane Community College is undergoing another of the budget crises that have affected five out of six fiscal years. While it is true that the first two were precipitated by the sudden reduction in state funding during Oregon's budget crisis, the college would have the public believe that all the blame lies on external factors and that it has acted prudently in the best interests of students. It's not quite that simple.

In the middle of its last fiscal year (FY06, ending June 30, 2006), LCC was surprised to discover that its budget was falling millions of dollars in the red. FY06 ate up much of LCC's cash cushion and FY07 was balanced through the elimination of dozens of employees who provided support services. FY08's budget, now being developed, appears to need about $3 million in fresh cuts.

LCC's problem has been made worse by the state's latest policy, termed "equity," under which total tax revenue, local and state, is being made roughly equal per student across Oregon. If you're "rich" in local property taxes, you'll get less from Salem. It's the same calculation they use for K-12.

This means that no college can spend substantially more per student than other colleges. LCC recently gave its faculty raises to bring them close to the top range of faculties in Oregon. It also has an unusually large proportion of faculty on full-time status. A full-time instructor costs about twice as much as a comparable part-time instructor per class. LCC has a high cost structure.

Discussions aimed at fixing the budget have focused on cuts in expenses. Further cuts are likely to impact enrollment, which leads to revenue losses. The easiest solution is just the reverse. There are many classes where direct costs are far below direct revenues. Significant growth in these areas could lead Lane back to solvency.

There are many ways for LCC to grow, but right now I'll only discuss one. Lane has two satellite campuses (Florence and Cottage Grove) and seven Community Learning Centers (CLCs) at area high schools. It has never done much with them and has decided to do still less. It should instead do more than ever.

LCC argues that there hasn't been enough demand, but in fact there haven't been enough classes. Students won't take a few classes at a CLC and the rest at the main campus. It doesn't make economic sense. But the advantages of doing 100 percent at a CLC are immense. For an Elmira student, for instance, the cost of commuting to the main campus for a full-time load could be equivalent to about $40/credit. Since total tuition is only about $70/credit, the benefits to such students would be huge.

There are significant social considerations. Classes at CLCs would increase the number of students who could walk, bike or take public transportation to classes. The remainder would have much shorter commutes in their cars. And of course, educating more students is exactly the sort of thing Lane is supposed to being doing.

Finally, the college's finances would improve. These classes would be simple, involving little overhead, and would be taught by part-timers. The benefits would phase in over a period of years, but they would contribute to a permanent budget solution.

Unfortunately, there is also the option of self-delusion. This has been the preferred technique for years. Since state cash is not for current instructional expenses but comes in subsequent years as "reimbursement," it's possible to pretend that the current budget is balanced when FTE enrollment is lost and the damage to state reimbursement doesn't show up until later.

This leads to a death spiral. The time has come for LCC instead to discard the illusions, accept whatever short-term pain is required and begin to grow back into financial health.

Rob Spooner of Florence is a former candidate for the LCC Board. He is co-publisher of Oregon Coast and Northwest Travel magazines.