REGIONAL SPOTLIGHT: Community college budget needs scrutiny

Posted: April 09, 2012

By John Braxton ?and Stephen Jones

City Council will hold a hearing on the Community College of Philadelphia's budget on Tuesday, and it could be standing-room only. The college's slogan is "The Path to Possibilities," but when it comes to spending, it has lost its way.

The college's primary mission is to provide education and training for working- and middle-class students. But it has become the most expensive community college in the state, with tuition and fees accounting for more than 50 percent of its operating budget. While students struggle with tuition hikes, faculty and staff are being asked to pay thousands of dollars more for health care, even though some support employees are paid so little that they qualify for food stamps.

Over the past 14 years, however, administration costs have grown from 14 percent to 21 percent of the college's budget for salaries. If those costs had been held constant, the college would have saved $30 million that could have been better spent in its classrooms.

While insisting on "holding the line" on staffing costs during talks with our union, college president Stephen M. Curtis is pulling down an annual salary that is more than $100,000 higher than that of the governor of Pennsylvania. His nearly $300,000-a-year pay package includes $37,500 for a "housing and car allowance," which is more than the annual salaries of many of the college's employees.

City Council members considering the budget may also be curious about how the college managed to pay $5.8 million in cash for a new property, or why it has $20 million in available funds at a time of mounting tuition for students and increasing health-care costs for staff.

President Obama recently noted that Americans are fed up with rising college tuition, saying, "Let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can't stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down. Higher education can't be a luxury; it's an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford."

Likewise, in a recent column in the Washington Post, Robert McCartney asked, "Has greed swamped learning as the top priority for America's institutions of higher education? As U.S. universities increasingly model themselves on private businesses for the sake of cost efficiency and economic success, they risk neglecting their primary mission of teaching students."

Our core message to City Council this week will be that the Community College of Philadelphia needs to reexamine its priorities. If it's going to provide the best possible education for students, it needs to get resources into the classroom, value high-quality teaching and staffing, and control administrative costs.

John Braxton is an assistant professor of biology at the Community College of Philadelphia, where Stephen Jones is an assistant professor of English. They are co-presidents of the American Federation of Teachers Local 2026.

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