‘Enormous’ budget challenge for College of the Siskiyous

Eve Thompson

College of the Siskiyous president Randy Lawrence admits he is alternately optimistic and nervous about the 2012-2013 school year.

The need to cut $3.5 million from the COS budget “will be an enormous challenge for our community,” Lawrence said during a recent interview.

But he also expressed faith that members of the COS community will work together and handle the challenge. “We’re a creative community, and the more creative we can be when deciding if there’s a better way to do things, the better off we’ll be.”

Lawrence is preparing to make budget cut suggestions to the board of trustees that could include three important areas:?student support services such as counseling and tutoring, the number and type of classes offered, and the infrastructure.

He said the bottom line for any decisions is being able to maintain student success.

“We must pull together for our common purpose, that of serving our students and protecting our college.

When we all look at the big picture for COS’s future, I know we’ll make it work,” Lawrence said.

Deciding what to cut is “much like asking which of your children you want to kill,”?he said. “It’ll be hard, but we’ll find a way to balance those three areas.”

COS has cut $1.5 million from its budget over the past two years, but Lawrence said that “was a lot like cutting the low hanging fruit from a tree. There were some staff layoffs, but not many, and no instructors were laid off. We cut things like supplies and travel budgets and made careful decisions about backfilling vacancies of positions created by retirees and those who moved on.”

This time around, he concedes, the necessary changes will create a lot of pain. “Personnel costs account for 80 percent of the college budget, so balancing our budget will affect wages and benefits; there will be layoffs.”  

“The school won’t look like it has in the past,” Lawrence grimly noted. “Having said that, I would rather be at COS than at many other California schools. Historically, our board, staff, and faculty have always been really careful about how to spend money. Frankly, some schools may have to shut their doors; the financial crisis really is that bad.”

Even if voters pass a proposed November ballot tax increase measure designed to raise funds for schools, Lawrence said it would not offset COS’s budget crisis.

The tax proposal calls for raising the sales tax by a quarter-cent per dollar for four years and increasing  income taxes on a graduated scale for seven years for those who make more than $250,000.

California’s state treasurer estimates that the tax would bring $9 billion more into the state’s general fund the first year and $7.1 billion each succeeding year.

“The funny thing about the money earmarked from the tax’s passage is that the state will use the funds to pay down the deferred debt that colleges have had to acquire these last years to keep operating,”?Lawrence said. “Essentially, the state didn’t have the money to fund schools, so it gave out IOUs promising that once funds were available, we’d get the money. It will help lower our debt, but it does not provide growth money.”

Lawrence said his budget suggestions will be based on the worst case scenario: failure of the education tax proposal.

It will help if it does pass, but he said he doesn’t want to “be caught in a situation where we don’t have the money to run the college.”

Any budget cuts must pass the ‘Is it essential to student success’ test. “The question we’ll ask is: ‘yes, it’s nice to have, but can COS and its students live and succeed without it?’ We’ll focus on finding efficiencies,” Lawrence said.

By efficiencies he means working with the curriculum so that classes are offered at optimal times for the maximum number of students. “We’ll try not to teach classes with just five students in them,”?he said. “When it comes to infrastructure, we’ll focus on how to conserve things like electricity and paper. We’ll make sure we’re not using gas guzzling transportation for trips our music students and athletes must take.

Our classrooms may not get cleaned as often or our lawn mowed as frequently.”

Meanwhile, a new two-story science building is being constructed on the COS Weed campus. It is being paid for with bond money, not tax money. “It is a great building, and we take our victories where we can,” Lawrence smiled. “It gives us something to celebrate during these tough times. This fall, our students will walk into a state-of-the-art building with brand new equipment. It’s great for COS students. We’re thankful for what’s good and we’ll work as best we can with what’s bad.”