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State legislators question community college consolidation process

A bipartisan group of legislators listened Monday morning as community college professors, students and past and former administrators criticized the consolidation process of the state's community colleges. 

During the first meeting of the Bipartisan Community College Caucus, professors, union leaders and students from Connecticut’s 12 state colleges and universities, including Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, denounced the ongoing consolidation of the dozen institutions under the umbrella of the Connecticut State Community College, saying it would threaten local control.

The many critics found a mostly sympathetic audience in the more than a dozen state legislators in attendance. Caucus co-chairs Sen. Rick Lopes, D-New Britain, and Rep. Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, led the meeting, which was also attended by state Rep. Christine Conley, D-Groton. 

Colena Sesanker, a philosophy professor at Gateway Community College and chair of the faculty advisory committee to the Board of Regents, challenged Gov. Ned Lamont’s and the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system’s assertion that the consolidation is “mostly a streamlining of back office functions.” 

“There is a lot of misinformation, and it is not by accident,” she said. “Consolidation means the elimination of all 12 community colleges and what that means is that among other things legislators will not be able to take for granted that they will have a full service college.”

She also challenged the original assertion by the Board of Regents in 2017, when the original decision to consolidate was made, that it would save the system money. In fact, she said, the projected cost of labor for the transition in the 2017 resolution was zero. She said academic and student affairs staffing for the college “that doesn’t yet exist” for 2021 is at $10.5 million, and that the cost of staffing going forward would be about $13 million annually.

“This is just one category of spending in one year, and there are many others,” she said. “The projections that … we will make money in the future are based on unrealistic expectations such as the jump in enrollment by about 25%, which is just impossible.” 

In September, CSCU Director of Communications Leigh Appleby said the contention that the state university system is spending too much money on administrators due to the consolidation “is simply not true.” 

“Connecticut State Community College will have fewer administrative positions and has realized actual savings of $11.6 million in fiscal year 2019 and $17.18 million in fiscal year 2020, and it expects savings of more than $20 million per year,” he wrote in an email at the time. “At the same time, as part of the merger, we are moving toward Guided Pathways, a suite of reforms aimed at providing significant additional student supports.”  

While legislators stopped short of calling for the end of the consolidation, Sesanker did not, saying, “We’ve suffered too much damage for too many years to keep going down this road.” 

“I think this is going to be a huge mess, and I think we’re going to have to clean it up for years,” she added. “The money doesn’t add up. The processes don’t add up. There’s an absence of a clear vision for this thing.” 

Sesanker and other speakers advocated for retaining accreditation of the 12 colleges rather than a single accreditation, to preserve local control over the curriculum, to bolster staff and to “engage in a realistic plan to financially support the community colleges.” 

Cheeseman highlighted one of Sesanker’s points that she said particularly concerned her, noting that part-time students and students “underserved by the K-12 system” need additional help navigating the community college system. 

Estela Lopez, former interim provost for Connecticut State Colleges and Universities and now a consultant for community colleges, underscored what Sesanker and others said — that resources are being diverted to a central, main administrative office in New Britain and away from real campuses with students.

Lopez said she called a school in the CSCU that she declined to name pretending to be a student looking to transfer 42 credits from 2007 and from a community college out of state. She encountered a difficult customer service experience. 

“She said, ‘I’m sorry, you have to start all over again, that’s too many years ago. I knew that was not true, I knew she was giving me the wrong information,” Lopez said. She then called a different number but ended up with the same customer service representative. When Lopez told the woman on the other line that she was wrong, the woman hung up the phone. This story gave legislators and other stakeholders pause. 

“Things that are lacking now is that rapid response that can happen to schools. You need to hold their feet to the fire on this financing piece because this is how it got sold, because they believe it was a sustainable way to help the colleges and put more money into student programs,” Roberta Willis, a former longtime Connecticut state representative, said, arguing against a corporate business model for the community colleges after hearing Lopez’s story. 

A related issue that state lawmakers said needed to be addressed is mental health services. Students and professors alike said  mental health services at the schools are insufficient and counseling staff is overworked. Cheeseman and others were outraged that some of that counseling work has been outsourced to a company in Texas for remote-only services. 

“I’m not outsourcing our taxpayer dollars to Texas psychologists,” state Rep. Steve Meskers, D-Greenwich, said.

Central New Mexico Community College President Tracy Hartzler spoke about CHESS, the Collaborative for Higher Education Shared Services, a nonprofit organization formed by the joining together of five public colleges in that state.  According to the publication "Inside Higher Ed," the program's "goals include eliminating need for multiple admission applications, limiting record duplication, making it easier for students to take classes at multiple colleges and simplifying student transfer. Shared decision making, data and processes are also intended to save money.”

She said the individual institutions are making decisions together as a collective rather than being at the mercy of a separate administrative body, such as the Board of Regents.

“We’ve heard today already from New Mexico community colleges,” said Diba Khan-Bureau, a professor at Three Rivers. “They have alternatives. It’s not necessary to consolidate. They are doing a different way of putting the back office functions together as a consortium, as a partnership, and not making the community colleges into corporate America, as the Board of Regents and the system office is doing.”

State Rep. Greg Haddad, D-Mansfield, made a similar point. 

“The desire to grow itself is to the detriment of individual college campuses,” he said. “What we have is a flawed system that puts the administrative bureaucracy above the presidents and campus leaders in terms of influence, and really as the guardian of access to the Board of Regents. And so what happens is the bureaucratic layer has the power to control what’s going on in individual campuses and to make system-wide decisions.”

Lopes said Monday’s meeting was a good way for lawmakers to be informed for the upcoming legislative session. He said he anticipates bills being introduced related to the consolidation. And he said he’d be happy to hold a similar information session with CSCU President Terrence Cheng and “someone from the administration.” 

“I do understand the process is pretty far along and there’s quite a lot of momentum in that process, but at the same time there’s also a lot of problems and we would be remiss in our duty if we did not investigate them and suggest solutions,” Lopes said. 

Cheeseman agreed with Lopes and said a push for legislation has to be bipartisan. 

“I would welcome the chance to talk to President Cheng, and if they think this is such a good idea, and they can demonstrate they’re achieving those goals, terrific,” she said.

s.spinella@theday.com

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