The Austin Chronicle

ACC Budget Axe Swings: Will It Miss Students?

By Walter Howerton Jr, February 28, 2003, News

The Austin Community College board feels like Gov. Rick Perry has handed it an axe and told it to start chopping and not to stop until 7% has been trimmed from the current year's budget. The order comes at a terrible time for pruning, says Board Chairman Rafael Quintanilla. "For any college that is a hard mandate," but when cuts are ordered this far into the academic year it is particularly difficult. "Fall semester is over. Spring semester already has begun. Faculty is hired. Students are in class. We can't just stop spending. That puts a lot of pressure on the summer session" for the budget axe, he said.

The ACC budget for the current academic year is approximately $106 million. To fall in line with Perry's demands, ACC must cut about $3.2 million of that. As it trims, the board wants to avoid the unkindest cut of all -- hacking into the already strained finances of ACC's students. "The last resort, the very last resort, would be a tuition increase for summer school only," Quintanilla said. "What we heard loudly" at a recent public hearing "was students who spoke very eloquently to the fact that they might not even be able to stay in school" if there is a tuition increase to help make up for state-mandated cuts.

Ben Ferrell, ACC's chief financial officer, is also the co-chair of the 20-member internal budget committee formed to propose and refine ways to cut the budget to meet state demands. "The committee has recommended raising $200,000 by increasing summer school tuition for out-of-district and out-of-state students," Ferrell said. Out-of-district students would be charged an extra $5 per credit hour; out-of-state students would pay an extra $17 per credit hour. And, said Quintanilla, "we do not have the funds for additional financial aid." Students would absorb the entire amount.

In-district students currently pay $531 for 12 credit hours; out-of-district students pay $1,155 and out-of-state students $2,199. About 5% of ACC's enrollment income comes from out-of-state students, 23% from out-of-district students. The ACC service area covers 29 Central Texas school districts, but in only three of those -- Austin, Leander, and Manor -- do citizens pay property taxes to support the college.

The board is hesitant to enact a tuition increase, and Ferrell said ACC President Richard Fonté opposes the idea and would like to see cuts made in expenditures and only "go to the students last." ACC spokeswoman Cile Spelce said, "Dr. Fonté is concerned about the students bearing even more of the burden. He, along with the ACC board of trustees, is looking at all other options for cutting expenses before raising tuition this summer. A tuition increase would mean ACC has run out of options."

The two leading proposals for cuts are to withhold money from ACC's reserve fund and to freeze spending on travel and equipment and supply purchases. Ferrell said that those two areas should give ACC the $3.2 million cut Perry wants. No money would be taken from the school's current $9.1 million reserve fund to meet shortfalls, he said; instead, $1.4 million scheduled to be added to the fund out of this year's budget would be withheld.

Spelce said the school is considering a complete freeze on purchasing everything from the "smallest and most insignificant to the largest and fanciest." Ferrell said the purchasing freeze could throw ACC's technology plan as much as three years behind because planned purchases of computers and servers would be put on hold.

The purchase and travel cuts and freezes will be made by going to various departments, "telling them we need 25% cut and letting them make the decisions," Ferrell said. There will be no layoffs or salary reductions.

Ferrell added that ACC cannot impose a hiring freeze: "We already have had a hiring freeze for two years," The board hopes to vote on committee proposals March 3.

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