New state budget means reprieve from Parkland’s funding woes

Photo provided by Prospectus News

Photo provided by Prospectus News

Greg Gancarz

Staff Writer

Illinois’ recent budget approval is good news for Parkland’s finances, as the college sees a flow of money coming in from Springfield to make up for years of almost no state funding.

The budget, which was approved in July after the state legislature overrode Governor Bruce Rauner’s veto, calls for spending cuts of over $2 billion from last year. Parkland has already seen a 10 percent decrease in state funding this year.

Parkland President Thomas Ramage says the approved budget is a welcome surprise, if it means that the college will actually see the money, which has not been the case in recent years.

“2015 was the last year for a normal budget year,” Ramage said. “[In 2016 and 2017] we got parts and pieces of funding which ended up roughly being half a year’s worth of budget for each of those two years. So, it’s like we had a budget cut of 50 percent two years in a row, which was disastrous.”

State funds have already begun to flow into Parkland’s coffers, including money reimbursing absent funding from previous years. State payments are all “very current for the most part” Ramage says.

“Little bits are coming on a pretty regular basis, and other years it’s been an 18-month process to get 12 months of funding.”

He says the budget getting passed was an unexpected and fortunate event for the school.

“I thought it was zero budget until the next governor’s election, so this was a bit of a surprise,” he said. “The stars aligned.”

Although only about 2.5 percent of Parkland’s budget relies on state funding, Ramage says that there would still be “pain” if the school had to suddenly absorb the costs of the state totally cutting off the flow of money. Parkland’s reliance on state money remains relatively small, but it is still anticipated.

“We can survive without it, but we’ll expect some of it to come at some point,” Ramage said.

The money from the state provides the college with some additional sense of financial security.

“We had a balanced budget before the state gave us any money,” Ramage said. “What this did was make it really balanced. So, we have a couple million dollars more than we anticipate spending this year.”

“This is the first year in a long, long time, that we’ve had some breathing room.”

He says the money will be put in the bank and used to cover costs from previous years spent in the red, as well as serve as a ‘rainy-day fund.’ He believes the new financial atmosphere and budget will not last, however.

“I anticipate this getting worse,” Ramage said. “This is a blip year. In eight months or so, when they start seriously looking at the budget for next year, we’re going to see the same things that we saw before. We’ll have gridlock. There will be the same budget impasse that we had again, and it will be ten times worse. I’d bet money on it.”

Parkland’s response to anticipated financial woes is an ongoing attempt to lessen its dependence on state money and continue to budget funds effectively.

“We’re already down 65 net fulltime positions from about two years ago, There’s a litany of cuts and reductions that we’ve made. Some of that we’re adding back in. We were preventing or really restricting travel, we were not awarding sabbaticals, we were holding positions that became vacant for about six months and recouping that salary.”

The money from the state has allowed the college to lighten some of its spending restrictions, but it remains stringent on what it will spend money on, Ramage said.

“A lot of those [reductions] have eased, but only the things that are non-recurring expenses,” he said. “If we bought a computer this year because we had excess money, that’s fine. We’re not going to hire somebody that has a recurring cost multiple years where we’re responsible then for salary and benefits for more than one year. So, any expense that is a multi-year expense, we’re really looking at carefully. I know we’re going to be in a situation [at the next budget impasse] and I do not want to fire people or close programs.”

He says there is little chance for a repeat in coming years of last fall’s decision to not renew the contracts of non-tenured faculty in the face of a stringent financial situation. Eight faculty members were involuntarily separated from the college by a board of trustees vote in Nov. 2017.

“The likelihood of the state going to zero permanently, in terms of hiring funding, is not likely,” Ramage said. “We’re organized today from a staffing standpoint where we could survive without substantial state funding.”

Other goals include maximizing enrollment in the face of a six-year trend of falling numbers of students at Parkland, a situation that’s affected most schools nationally. However, Ramage believes the problem is cyclical in nature.

“We’re about five percent down now in full time enrollments. Reversing that trend is my No. 1 goal. However, I don’t have any magic. The state and the whole nation [are] experiencing the same thing. It’s just the way things go—it’s economics.”

Efforts to combat that trend include working to draw-in students from outside the Parkland College district, including possible prospects from Chicago with programs like aviation and others. Ramage hopes enrollments in these various unique programs could add up.

Ramage’s outlook for the future of the state’s financial planning contrasts his views of Parkland’s own. He’s still “extraordinarily confident” that Parkland will persevere in the inevitable hard times.

“I’m very, very confident,” he says. “If all the money in the state that has been spent on higher education were to go away, we would be among the last standing [colleges]. Today it’s 2.5 percent of our budget, so if all the state money went away right now, 2.5 percent is pretty easy to absorb. The rest of our income comes from student tuition and property taxes and those are pretty stable.”

Ramage believes that, if necessary, Parkland could be sustainable without the state budget.

“We would have pain, but no problem fiscally getting to the point where we’re self-sustaining on just tuition and property taxes,” he said. “It wouldn’t be fun—there would be fewer of us is what I’m saying—but we would certainly survive. […] You probably wouldn’t see any program cuts.”