The University of Maine isn't the only public, post-secondary, educational system in the state facing financial challenges. At a meeting this afternoon, trustees of the Maine Community College System voted to increase tuition by $2 per credit hour for the next school year.
Higher education board meetings can be tense, especially when issues like budgets and tuition increases fill the agenda. But this meeting, at Community College headquarters in Augusta, was low-key. No overflow crowd of students or faculty, waiting to speak. And no overhead projector, flashing slide after slide of depressing financial data.
"I'd like to call the work session to order. We expect a couple trustees to call in on the phone," said board chair Robert Clark.
There were just two items on the agenda, explained Robert Clark, who handed the floor to John Fitzsimmons when it was time to talk tuition. Fitzsimmons is president of the Maine Community College System.
"Tuition increase is something we are always very reluctant to do," Fitzsimmons said.
But this coming year, Fitzsimmons told the board, the system really doesn't have a choice. When you're running a public institution, he noted, you need public support.
"And the state revenues are not in a position to help support us," he said. "We have flat funding from the state. We're anticipating flat enrollment."
The system, he reminded trustees, just signed new collective bargaining agreements that include salary increases over the next year.
"With heat going up, and retirement going up, and all the utilities going up, we were in a position that we needed to have some help from students in order to balance how we're going to operate," Fitzsimmons said.
Next year, under a plan later approved by the full board, the Maine Community College System will raise student tuition by $2 per credit hour. The jump will result in an over all annual increase of $60 for all full-time students. The system, Fitzsimmons noted, will still offer the lowest overall tuition in all of New England - just $2,700.
After his presentation, the board opened the meeting up for public comment. Charles Galemmo teaches culinary arts at York County Community College and heads up the system's faculty association. Galemmo says the group supports the slight tuition bump, but worries such increases, on their own, won't be able to make up the long-term loss of funding from the state.
"And one of the concerns that we, the faculty association, have is with the prospects, with declining funds, potential layoffs," Galemmo said. "We've had some,unfortunately."
Last week, Northern Maine Community College announced it was eliminating four faculty positions to make up a budget deficit of just under $1 million. At Kennebec Valley Community College, meantime, two faculty positions have been eliminated and seven vacant administrative positions will go unfilled.
"The Community College System has A long-standing procedure that we do not allow colleges to defict spend," said board chair Robert Clark. "So we are looking to the future all the time to make sure colleges are staying within their budget and within the means that they have."
The Maine Community College System has experienced unprecedented 80 percent growth over the past decade. But John Fitzsimmons says that trend is tapering off now. In the coming years, Fitzsimmons expects enrollment to decline, putting even more financial pressure on existing students, and on administrators making the tough budgeting decisions on the system's seven campuses.