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2011 July 25 - 12:00 am

Money Tree: NC College Leaders Balk at Campus Merger Plan

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s community colleges could save about $5 million a year by folding administration and back-office work at the smallest campuses into larger neighbors, a legislative efficiency report said.

But campus leaders are balking at the proposal, saying $5 million a year in savings is small compared to the disruptions the mergers would cause.

“I am totally opposed to the consolidation and merger idea,” said Mary Kirk, president of Montgomery Community College and of the North Carolina Association of Community College Presidents. “If the recommendation to consolidate colleges is implemented, it would devastate our rural communities. It is all they have. Our rural citizens would no longer have access to the same level of affordable education and training.”

The General Assembly’s program evaluation division reported that merging the administration at 15 of the smallest colleges into bigger campuses within 30 miles and forming a purchasing cooperative to get volume discounts would save nearly $30 million over six years.

No campuses at the country’s third-largest system would close. The schools with fewer than 3,000 full-time students would lose their separate presidents, payroll departments and other administrative functions to the larger community colleges in the merger.

“What would change is the number of administrators,” said Catherine Moga Bryant, who wrote the evaluation report for lawmakers.

The report found that the smallest colleges cost about 50 percent more to operate than do larger campuses.

Twenty of the state’s 58 community colleges already run multiple campuses. In all, there are 162 campuses and off-campus satellite centers in 91 of the state’s 100 counties.

Community college leaders should be directed to decide which 15 of the 22 smaller, rural colleges that could fit the profile for possible consolidation should be merged, Bryant said.

Kirk argued that the community colleges already are efficient, working with less funding but serving thousands more students than the University of North Carolina system, while also offering education to high school students and prison inmates, Kirk said. The colleges enrolled the equivalent of about 250,000 full-time students this year after accounting for the many students who attend part-time, Chief Financial Officer Jennifer Haygood said.

Community colleges are looking at many ways to become more efficient, never more so because of pending spending cuts, Community College System President Scott Ralls said. The state budget that will take effect Friday cuts about $115 million from the funding that would have maintained current service levels.

“I would hope that there may be several places state leaders would want to look first before tackling the costs, both tangible and intangible, that would come through such a drastic change,” Ralls said in a written response. “The fact that only $5 million would be saved by consolidating 15 community colleges speaks directly to the lean nature of our colleges.”

Kirk and Ralls said they agreed that community colleges should combine their purchasing power to get better prices for high-volume product purchases.

Members of a legislative committee that heard the merger proposal postponed any decision until they meet again next month.

North Carolina’s community colleges were established to meet community needs and without regard to proximity to nearby campuses. The colleges are run largely independently of each other and the central office headed by Ralls. They range in size from 624 full-time students at Pamlico Community College to 16,200 at Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, the report said.

About 55 percent of their funding comes from state taxpayer funds, another 27 percent from counties, and 17 percent from tuition. 

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