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2018 February 12 - 03:45 pm

Miss. Colleges Cut Programs, Slash Jobs

Shrinking State Support Puts Squeeze on Sports, Pay Raises

JACKSON (AP) — Community colleges across Mississippi are eliminating nearly 250 jobs for the upcoming year to close budget gaps, and five are dropping at least one intercollegiate sport.

The moves come as the 15 community colleges increase tuition by an average of 13 percent, mostly because state funding has fallen. Average tuition and fees will rise to $3,104 annually, up from $2,748 this year.

Community College Board Executive Director Andrea Mayfield said in a statement that 81 people will be laid off, while 122 jobs will be eliminated after employees leave or retire. Colleges plan to cut 35 student jobs, a way many students earn money for school, and will eliminate three vacant positions.

“With each college having different needs, and facing different financial situations, the impact of budget cuts to colleges extends far beyond the tuition increase,” Mayfield said.

Colleges started the current budget year with $265 million in state funding but will start next year with $237 million.

The schools had nearly 5,900 full-time employees in 2016, with thousands more part-time employees.

Coahoma Community College could rescind pay raises for employees. College spokeswoman Brittany Davis-Green said Wednesday that if other money isn’t found, the college could take back raises of 2 percent to 3 percent given to all employees in the now-ending budget year, an amount worth $250,000. For now, employees will continue to receive the pay bump at the 2,200-student Clarksdale institution.

“We’re going to wait and see if we can go down other avenues so we don’t have to take that step,” Davis-Green said.

More than two dozen college employees will see pay cuts because their contracts will be reduced to less than year-round or supplemental pay for coaching sports will be eliminated.

Board spokesman Kell Smith said community colleges will drop a total of 11 sports. Copiah- Lincoln will stop sponsoring men’s and women’s soccer; East Mississippi will end men’s golf; Holmes will drop men’s and women’s tennis; Northeast Mississippi will end men’s golf, and men’s and women’s tennis; and Northwest Mississippi will end men’s golf, and men’s and women’s tennis.

Smith said the colleges would continue to honor scholarships for athletes in those sports.

The independently governed schools made their own decisions about cuts.

East Central Community College President Billy Stewart said his institution is absorbing a $1 million cut in state funding, part of the reason the Decatur-based school raised tuition nearly 20 percent, though it will remain the lowest statewide at $2,790 a year. Stewart said the college won’t fill 10 vacant positions, won’t give salary increases and will cut other spending.

“It can’t be an all-on-the-student situation,” he said.

Scott Elliott, president of Meridian Community College, said the school will deal with the cuts by raising tuition, lowering personnel costs and using cash reserves. He said layoffs at MCC are a possibility, but considers that option a last resort.

“There is no question that projected reductions in state appropriations to MCC of roughly $1.4 million for FY18 demand some painful adjustments,” Elliott said in an email. “First, we will be raising our tuition by $200 per semester, which means our students will be bearing part of the brunt of the loss of state support. Even though MCC’s tuition will remain below the state average for community colleges, it is nonetheless disconcerting to be compelled to increase costs to our students. One of the long-established tenets of the American community college movement is to offer quality higher education opportunities at the lowest possible price.

Every time you raise tuition, you also risk reducing access. That’s bad, but it’s an unfortunate consequence of the environment in which we are currently operating.”

Elliott said MCC plans to lower personnel costs through attrition, meaning the school will not replace several positions on the faculty and administration where retirements are occurring. The school also plans to cut expenditures on travel, equipment and supplies.

“Budgetarily, we’re thinking in terms of needs, not wants,” he said. “For the second straight year, MCC employees will not be accorded a raise…during these times, keeping your job constitutes a raise.”

Elliott said the school will also likely draw down on the college’s cash reserves in an effort to avoid layoffs. The amount of that draw will be determined as the year progresses on a cash flow basis.

“The use of cash reserves is without question a one-time fix,” he said. “Our employees have already been apprised of that. In FY17, the state reduced support to community colleges four times because tax revenues did not come in at projected levels. If that trend continues, the college will ultimately have no options other than to further reduce personnel costs through more attrition, perhaps a furlough program, reductions in contract lengths for certain personnel, possible elimination of some low enrollment programs, across-the-board pay reductions and/or layoffs. I truly hope those things don’t occur, but some state officials have already forecast that tax revenues will not meet projections again in FY18 due to the impending impact of corporate tax breaks and dwindling sales tax and personal income tax revenues.”

“At the end of the day, government employees are just people like everybody else,” Elliot said. “When you lay somebody off, you’re taking away their ability to provide for their families, and you’re putting more people in the unemployment line — digging Mississippi’s hole even deeper. At least, that’s the way I look at it. Still, layoffs loom as a distinct possibility for the future. In my 19 years as MCC’s president, I haven’t yet faced that ugly specter. It may be on my doorstep, but I will always view layoffs as a last resort.”

East Mississippi Community College President Dr. Thomas Huebner said the cuts will affect more than a dozen employees at the school.

“EMCC, like many institutions in Mississippi, has had to make difficult choices as we’ve prepared for the new budget year,” Huebner said in an email. “In addition to not filling many positions previously left open by retirements and attrition, we’ve had to downsize by more than a dozen personnel across all our locations.”

Huebner said plans to start a women’s soccer program, which was previously budgeted to begin in 2017-2018, have been placed on hold, and the golf team has been put on hiatus indefinitely.

“There were no easy choices as we made tough decisions associated with our budget, but our faculty and staff are resilient and remain committed to providing the best possible educational experience for those who choose to pursue opportunities at EMCC,” he said.

Meridian Star News Editor Bill Graham contributed to this report.

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