BTC explains conditions behind referendum proposal

December 11, 2013

From beloitdailynews.com: “BTC: Either cuts or $4M referendum” — by Hillary Gavan – A $4 million referendum for Blackhawk Technical Colleges (BTC) annual budget would enable the college to offer more career pathways to job seekers and more skilled workers for businesses looking to hire, according to BTC President Tom Eckert, Vice President of Finance & Operations Renea Ranguette and Foundation and Alumni Association Director Kelli Cameron.

In a recent interview, BTC officials explained how enrollment has increased while state funds have been cut causing an estimated annual budget shortfall of $3.5 million. The voters have a choice to either move forward with a referendum or reduce programs and services.

“Our only other option is to shrink,” Ranguette said.

The proposed referendum would mean a tax increase of $37 for a home with an assessed value of $100,000, translating to $3.08 per month. The board would have to approve the potential referendum by the Jan. 16 board meeting in order to get it on the ballot for the April 1 election.

In 2009, Eckert said enrollment increased 54 percent at BTC when General Motors (GM) closed. During the years that followed BTC increased certain programs to meet student needs while making a total of $3.2 million in cuts to services, programs and personnel.

“It was a combination of offering more of the right programs our community needed while making reductions to those that weren’t in high demand,” Cameron said.

Now, in 2013, enrollment remains relatively high as state funding has been cut. For example, the 2011-13 state budget reduced Wisconsin Technical College System aid by 30 percent, reducing state aid to BTC by $1.5 million. And the local operating property tax levy was frozen in 2010.

“Our increased enrollment was bigger and longer than we thought,” Eckert said.

Eckert also noted that there still are many part-time students enrolled at BTC who may be under-employed and are trying to gain more skills as the economy still recovers.

During the time of the enrollment boon, Eckert said many positive changes were made to better address the educational needs of students and employers, which BTC hopes to continue. For example, during its increase BTC implemented more comprehensive student services such as tutoring, advising and career counseling.

“We thought they were key things to students staying in school, and things employers told us they needed,” Eckert said.

An example of an expanded program is welding, which now is offered from 6 a.m. – 10 p.m. daily and on Saturday to push out welders as quickly as possible due to a welder shortage.

BTC officials also want to keep their focus on health occupational offerings as well including a pharmacy technician program.

Although some programs and services have been increased, Eckert stressed how BTC has scaled back other programs. Employees have increased their benefit contributions and personnel have been reduced. For example, about 30 employees brought on via two-year contracts during the enrollment increase were not kept on board.

However, there are more staff overall since 2007 to support additional student services. Eckert noted about 80 percent of the operational budget is for staff salary and benefits.

The following are examples of operational savings: closed aviation program, $370,000; reduced the size of the electrical power distribution program, eliminated leadership program, and office systems tech position, $270,000; closed day care center, $72,000; increased employee contribution to Wisconsin Retirement System, $1 million; made personnel changes through attrition, $372,000; and cuts to operational accounts and activities, $169,000.

Historically, Eckert said BTC has received less local revenue on a per-student basis than all other small technical colleges in the state. BTC has 2,774 full time equivalent (FTE) students, second only to Moraine Park and Wisconsin Indianhead in its peer group of small technical colleges. However, BTC is eighth in its operational costs per FTE at only $11,745, compared to the average of about $14,000 among its peers.

“Even thought its the third largest among its peers, it charges the least per student,” Eckert said.

He added that the state sets the amount of tuition BTC can charge prohibiting the college from generating additional funds that way.

The Blackhawk Technical College Foundation has sent out surveys via mail and e-mail to more than 12,000 residents in Rock and Green counties to gauge community support for a potential referendum. On Dec. 19 the company conducting the surveys — School Perceptions — will present findings to the BTC Board in an open forum at 6 p.m. in the Board Room at the Central Campus’s administration building.

Eckert maintains it’s critical for BTC to continue its current programming to keep the local economy strong.

“We are a player in attracting businesses,” Eckert said.

He said for every tax dollar spent, communities get about $1.40 back in terms of what students spend. However, some figures put the figure as high as $14 back because of a higher educated populace which leads to a better healthcare, lower crime rats and less reliance on local taxing sources.

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