College president keeps eye on budget
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on March 6, 2011 1:50 AM
News-Argus/MICHAEL K. DAKOTA
Aware that the pending state budget will have ramifications for Wayne Community College, President Dr. Kay Albertson continues to make contingency plans for whatever the outcome will be.
Being president of Wayne Community College these days is a study in contrasts, says Dr. Kay Albertson -- enrollment rose sharply as the economy plummeted, while officials meanwhile are keeping a sharp eye on possible budget cuts from the state.
She has grown accustomed to "doing more with less," she says, despite the realization that community colleges are "absolutely essential" to the economic recovery.
"We'll do lots of short-term training. We're the best bang for the buck when it comes to the 18-year-old who might have in the past gone to a four-year institution," she said. "They can come here for the first two years and save their parents money."
Juggling a budget is nothing new for the college president, who said the scenario has played out repeatedly over the past three years.
In the fall, all state agencies were asked to again tighten their belts, with community colleges requested to revert another 2 percent of its budget to offset the state's shortfall.
Future cuts could be addressed in a variety of ways -- more students in classes, offering fewer sections, asking full-time instructors to take on additional courses -- but so far, Mrs. Albertson said she is pleased there have been no layoffs.
"I have in the last two years been able to work with the budgets as they have been decreased," she said. In some cases, attrition has helped -- positions vacated by retirement subsequently left vacant -- or replacing a position with a part-time worker.
"We were also asked to freeze hiring and that we stop all travel except for travel that was critical to the mission."
It's still too early to make predictions, so she remains optimistic that the budget will not only come in on time, but will be manageable.
"Hopefully it'll be before June 30," she said. "I have heard they're going to make decisions quickly, that we'll have a balanced budget by July. They're on a fast track.
"Does it mean cuts? If we had a 10 percent reduction across the board, yes, it would mean reduction. If we could get the enrollment growth money, it wouldn't."
She does worry at times, she said, but primarily because she aspires to maintain the excellent reputation the college has attained over the years.
"Wayne Community College was one of 11 of the 58 colleges this past year to be named a College of Excellence (with criteria mandated by the General Assembly). That takes resources to be able to meet those standards. I don't want to jeopardize that excellent quality."
So far, that is not in question, Mrs. Albertson said.
"This is the largest spring semester that we have ever had at WCC," she said. "I haven't had a single student say to me, 'You don't have enough instructors, I can't get in a class.' They don't feel the tightness that I and the staff feel.
"As we are looking at 2011-12, all that we have to go by is what we were asked to project as a cut and what the governor's budget has in store. It's just the first step, because it's got to have House and Senate oversight."
Ideally, the college will have a better understanding by fiscal year's end, June 30, so that Mrs. Albertson and the staff would have the summer to ensure WCC is on "strong footing" for next year, she said.
"When the budget comes in late, and it has for the last couple of years -- we have had it as late as October, last year it was August -- that's one of the conundrums. It's difficult to plan. We have options A, B, C and D -- what if you had to cut 10 percent from the current budget? That's how you plan. You hope that's a worst-case scenario but we all know we're going to be cut."
As is usually the case when the economy dips, community colleges across the state have experienced "huge enrollment growth," Mrs. Albertson said.
"Wayne Community College in the fall grew 8 percent," she said. "This has been my biggest growth year."
To keep pace with that requires receiving enrollment growth money, currently an estimated $34 million.
"In the governor's budget, that was cut to $17.5 million, a little over half of what we asked for to cover all 58 community colleges' enrollment growth," she said. "I'm going to continue to push for total enrollment growth funding."
What many might not realize, Mrs. Albertson said, is that the community college system often functions in arrears.
"I'm operating this year on money that I earned last year," she explained. "(The college) grew very rapidly, but I have got the funds from a year that didn't have as rapid growth.
"I'm constantly doing more with less. It's essential that we see enrollment growth money. That's hard in a recession."
She regularly fields questions from staff about how to plan during an unstable economy.
It's a challenge, she said, because it goes beyond buildings and materials.
"You're talking about lives -- your employees and your students," she said. "If I could be more concrete in my responses, I would be.
"It truly is a waiting game. I'm not casting stones at our legislative process ... What I would expect if history repeats itself, and this is not a bad thing, if the economy improves and there are more jobs, our enrollment will decrease and that's good as long as we're driven by the enrollment providing more money."
Right now, it's a matter of hoping for the financial situation to improve, while knowing that could mean a drop in enrollment. The trade-off, though, could be worth it, Mrs. Albertson says.
"It would make me happy -- if our enrollment flattens out, it's because the people have gotten jobs," she said. "That means that the economy is truly better.
"I don't think there's any question that our enrollment has grown because of the economy. But I also think it's because the message of the community college system and WCC specifically is getting out there and saying, 'Here's what we do, here's how we do it and you won't be sorry.' I think we're just doing a better job."
The president's pride in the college is evident, and her confidence a close second.
She said she has witnessed an increasing trend among those choosing Wayne Community for an education, whether it's in the college transfer program or to obtain a certificate or short-term training.
"I think we're serving some mighty fine students out there," she said. "I'm so impressed with our student body this year. I get a feeling of commitment on their parts. They're really hungry for training and job skills."
The college might be in a form of a "hold zone" at the moment, Mrs. Albertson said, but that should not be mistaken for sitting idle.
Not only are administrators actively planning and making contingencies for whatever unfolds, but they are ardent in their belief about the future of the college.
"The doors are always going to be open," Mrs. Albertson said. "What we do with literacy, training, the large percentages of people who know they have to take a step in education, filling in gaps in education with math or reading or whatever, and because we have such strong articulation agreements with four-year institutions, with very specific programs of study ... It's no longer just college transfer programs."