CSCU Administrative Budgets Out of Sync with Education Priorities Legislators Warn

A bipartisan group of legislators are calling for additional oversight of the Connecticut State College and University system out of concern that excessive administrative costs during the anticipated merger of the system’s 12 community colleges come at the expense of funding the degree programs and essential student services.

Even as decreased enrollment during the COVID pandemic has ballooned into a projected $69 million budget deficit for the colleges and universities, the system’s Board of Regents has set aside an extra $10.4 million to fund 88 administrative positions for the anticipated merger into a single Connecticut State Community College. 

The additional positions are intended to allow the newly merged college to meet standards of accreditation, even as the 12 existing colleges employ sufficient administrative capacity to meet standards of accreditation until the merger is complete in 2023

It’s a situation that State Rep. Gregory Haddad, D-Mansfield, worries will duplicate administrative services at the expense of the schools’ educational mission.

Leigh Appleby, director of communications at the Connecticut Board of Regents, said that the concern about duplicated services is “absolutely not true.” 

“I just feel that it will create a bloated, centralized, ineffective structure,” State Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato, R-Bristol, told CT Examiner.

“A main purpose of the merger is to eliminate duplicative functions and structures, so once the one college is launched those duplicative structures will no longer exist,” said Appleby. 

But that merger has sparked legislators to question whether the result will ultimately benefit students.

“I just feel that it will create a bloated, centralized, ineffective structure,” State Rep. Cara Pavalock-D’Amato, R-Bristol, told CT Examiner.

Pavalock-D’Amato reintroduced a bill this year that would require the state’s Board of Regents to ask for  legislative approval for any mergers or closings of state colleges or universities — a move which, she hopes, will allow the legislature to stop the merger before it receives official approval from the New England Commission of Higher Education, the accreditation body that has the final word over whether the project will be approved. 

State Rep. Josh Elliott, D-Hamden, who chairs the legislature’s Higher Education Committee, says he will support the bill. Elliott said he’s been hearing from professors and staff that the board was spending too much money on changes that could negatively affect students.

Severe Budget Deficits

The state system has been under significant budgetary pressure.

In September, the Board of Regents imposed a hiring freeze on CSCU colleges. 

On October 7, a presentation by the board projected that the total net reserves for the community colleges will decrease from $32.1 million in June 2020 to $15.7 million in June 2021, with six of the 12 colleges projected to have negative reserves.  A staff report from the board’s Finance and Infrastructure Committee also warned that further budget reductions could mean a loss of tutoring services, lab assistants and course offerings. 

Yet from 2017 to 2020, the budget for the System Office, the colleges’ administrative branch, increased by 46.5 percent, according to documents from the same meeting. This year, System Office reserves are projected to reach $16.04 million. 

At the October meeting, Board Chair Richard Balducci suggested lowering costs at the universities by decreasing funds directed toward student work positions, part-time lecturers and graduate assistants. 

Reactions from legislators

State Rep. Terrie Wood, R-Darien, said that the Board of Regents needs to be more transparent about its budgeting process. 

“I think many of us have concerns [that] it’s not the right group of people. They don’t ask questions that illuminate the path to a discussion about this system,” said Wood. 

Haddad is co-sponsoring another bill that would require the System Office to provide an itemized list of its own expenditures to the legislature. 

“There have been an increasing number of questions about what goes on in the Central Office,” said Haddad.  

State Sen. Kevin Witkos, R-Harwinton, said he doesn’t see a lack of transparency, just that the ongoing preparation for the merger makes the numbers difficult to track. Once the consolidation has been completed, he said, he believes this problem will be resolved. 

Appleby said that documents about the budget were posted on the university website, and that they provide the legislature with “in-depth fiscal updates” every six months and regularly testify at the Committees on Higher Education and Appropriations. 

A merged structure

Appleby said that the proposed merger had two goals – improving student outcomes and saving money. 

“Our graduation rates are the lowest in New England and near the bottom nationwide. Outcomes for students of color are far below their white peers,” Appleby said. 

He said that the merger would allow the colleges to implement “best practices” shown to improve student outcomes on a nationwide scale.

“Our graduation rates are the lowest in New England and near the bottom nationwide. Outcomes for students of color are far below their white peers,” Appleby said. 

The 88 funded positions for the merger include 14 executives, 14 directors of academic affairs, 25 positions in enrollment management and 35 student advisory positions, including three advisory directors.

The college has filled 37 of these positions, according to Appleby, thirty-one were transfers from other parts of the college and university system, and 6 were new hires. 

Chief Financial Officer Ben Barnes said the board aimed to fill the majority of the 88 positions through transfers, and that 44 of the positions would be through collective bargaining.

“They’ve been saying it’s going to save money for nine, 10 years now, and we are still not seeing savings,” added Wood. “You’re playing with a system that wasn’t broken.” 

Appleby also said that 165 positions were eliminated over the last three years, including 153 administrative positions. Yet budget documents show that administrative costs for the community colleges have increased from $24.75 million in June of 2016 to $41.5 million in June of 2020. 

Pavalock-D’Amato said she originally supported the merger, but when she took a closer look at the numbers, she didn’t see the cost savings she’d been told to expect.

“They’ve been saying it’s going to save money for nine, 10 years now, and we are still not seeing savings,” added Wood. “You’re playing with a system that wasn’t broken.” 

Keeping colleges open 

Appleby said that a second motive for the merger was to save enough money to be able to keep all 12 campuses functioning. 

“The college campuses are not only the economic and cultural centers of the cities and towns they serve, they also provide the only option for individuals in many of those communities to pursue higher educational opportunities,” said Appleby. 

Haddad said he agrees that the colleges are a critical part of the local economy. However, he said he fears the deficits could incentivize the board to shut down college campuses — another reason he wants the legislature to have a say over any closures and mergers. 

“I don’t think we should be putting any roadblocks in the process,” Witkos said during a meeting of the committee on February 4. 

Witkos said that he believes the legislature does need to have a say over campus closures, so they can protect students’ interests. However, he expressed concern that having a public hearing on a bill that could prevent the merger might interfere with the ongoing review by the accrediting commission. 

“I don’t think we should be putting any roadblocks in the process,” Witkos said during a meeting of the committee on February 4. 

Pavalock – D’Amato said that while she didn’t know if the bill would be able to stop the merger, she wanted to give the public a chance to respond in a hearing. She said she believed the figures that were originally presented about savings were no longer accurate. 

Appleby said that the bills going up before the legislature were raised “on a perennial basis.” 

“We have testified against them in the past and expect to do so again this year,” said Appleby.


This story has been updated to include revised hiring numbers from Leigh Appleby, director of communications at the Connecticut Board of Regents

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