PENDLETON — Budget woes and COVID-19 don’t make for sweetness and light.
Blue Mountain Community College President Dennis Bailey-Fougnier is generally a pretty upbeat guy, but one couldn’t blame him if he was feeling a bit blue this week.
On Monday, the college announced the intention to cut at least $2.8 million from the 2020-21 budget as the school’s reserve fund erodes.
On Tuesday, the BMCC Board of Education declared an emergency on Bailey-Fougnier’s recommendation. The board made the move as COVID-19 earlier this month halted on-campus instruction and forced classes online. In addition, the 23 faculty and staff who teach at the Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution were locked out by the Oregon Department of Corrections a couple of weeks ago in order to lower risk of the virus gaining a foothold inside prisons.
It’s uncertain whether the ODOC will continue to pay $230,000 per month to BMCC, which has the largest prison education program in the state. The college also provides instruction at Two Rivers Correctional Institution and Powder River Correctional Facility.
The emergency declaration gives Bailey-Fougnier some unilateral powers during the unfolding coronavirus crisis ensuring continuation of the college, health and safety of students, and help with procurement.
Karen Smith, general counsel for the Oregon Community College Association who drafted the emergency declaration for Oregon community colleges to use, said a handful of colleges have passed declarations. She expects the rest will follow suit.
The novel coronavirus didn’t cause BMCC’s budget woes, though it certainly doesn’t help.
At a recent budget workshop for faculty and staff, Bailey-Fougnier and Celeste Tate, associate vice-president of finance and business operations, gave a tutorial on what the college faces in the next year or two. The numbers on Tate’s spreadsheets told a grim tale of falling enrollment, increasing Public Employment Retirement System payments and decreasing state support. As she pointed to a table showing declining reserves, Tate said the college is approaching something of a financial cliff. Starting at $6.1 million in reserves at the end of 2017-18, the college is in danger of falling below the $1.5 million minimum required by the board.
Ever-increasing PERS payments are part of the problem.
“PERS is a huge hit to our budget,” Bailey-Fougnier told the group. “The Legislature needs to figure out a solution. A lot of public agencies are in the same boat. It’s growing as fast as our budgets and we can’t keep up.”
Enrollment declines in the past few years also hurt the bottom line. When enrollment drops, so does funding. A couple of low enrollment years will continue to plague the college for a while, Tate said.
“There’s a three-year rolling average that buffers big increases and decreases in enrollment,” Tate said.
She worked her way deftly through the financial data, her audience listening with rapt attention. At the end of the session, Bailey-Fougnier looked sympathetic.
“We didn’t do this to sound like Chicken Little,” Bailey-Fougnier said.
They would need clear understanding of the financial picture as they meet in small groups to share ideas about reductions and revenues. Ultimately, Bailey-Fougnier will consider their suggestions and make a recommendation to the board.
He doesn’t see a single solution. Not a huge tuition hike from the current $108 per credit hour or a bone-deep cut of people and programs.
“We are in the process of digging out of a hole,” he said. “Our hope is not to reduce a lot of staff.”