By Gene Davis, DENVER DAILY NEWS
As enrollment escalates and funding decreases, local educators say that Colorado community colleges have been put in a dire situation.
And with the state burning through most of its stimulus dollars to backfill higher education cuts this year, there is little money left to help prop up higher education next fiscal year.
“I won’t sugarcoat it; it’s difficult for everyone involved,” said Nancy McCallin, president of the Colorado Community College System.
Enrollment at Colorado community colleges has increased 20 percent overall this spring semester compared to the same time last year. Full time enrollment at Denver-area community colleges like the Community College of Denver and Red Rocks Community College has increased by more than 30 percent this semester.
Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Ritter announced last Thursday that his latest $50 million 2009-10 state budget rebalancing plan will cut an additional $5.5 million from higher education. And while stimulus funds will backfill that cut, it only leaves $89.2 million in stimulus dollars left for fiscal year 2010-11. Stimulus funds have backfilled more than $382 million in cuts to higher education this fiscal year alone.
Higher education has felt the brunt of state budget cuts because it’s one of the only large pools of money in the state budget that isn’t protected by the state constitution. Funding for K-12 education, for example, is constitutionally required to increase at 1 percent plus inflation every year.
The enrollment increase and a lack of a pay raise has significantly hurt the morale among the faculty of at least one community college, according to Leticia Sara, an assistant professor of political science at Red Rocks Community College. She estimates that teachers at Red Rocks this semester have anywhere from 20-50 total more students, which means more papers to grade and less space in the classroom.
Additionally, everyday infrastructure issues like full parking lots, an increased wear and tear on buildings and a lack of classroom availability are becoming problems at the community college.
“If there’s no money to start repairing existing things, I think that’s a bind,” Sara said.
Teachers aren’t the only ones suffering. A student having a hard time now has more people to compete with when seeking a teacher for one-on-one help, she said.
For their part, Ritter said last week that lawmakers understand the higher education funding dilemma. A bipartisan strategic group of more than 12 people has been put together to consider any possible higher education solution that could be turned into legislation this year, he said. The coalition includes Ray Baker, former chair of the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, and John Bliss, former vice president of budget and finance for the University of Colorado system.
As of last week, the state had not heard back from the federal government about getting a waiver that would allow Colorado to cut higher education to state funding levels below what they received in 2006. States are required to maintain 2006 funding levels to qualify for stimulus funding unless they get a waiver.
A decrease in tax revenue has caused Ritter and other lawmakers to close $2.1 billion in budget shortfalls over the past year and a half. Lawmakers are also looking to close a shortfall exceeding $1 billion in the upcoming 2010-11 budget.
Distributed by Colorado Capitol Reporters