September 24, 2018
Department of Education officials urge Erie County to decrease estimated enrollment, course offerings for first year, also weigh in on state aid projections.
The Pennsylvania Department of Education has advised Erie County officials to reduce first-year enrollment projections and course offerings in their application for a community college.
The county also has been told not to count on as much state aid, Gary Lee, director of administration for Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper, said Thursday.
The county had projected the full-time-equivalent of 769 students in the first year. It also proposed 19 inaugural course offerings, with the number increasing to 40 within five years.
State officials told the county those figures are too ambitious, Lee said, and suggested that enrollment projections for the first year be between 400 and 500 students. They also recommended that between eight and 10 courses be offered initially and expand to 40 in the four subsequent years.
Decreasing those projections would lead to a reduction in the proposed operating budget for the community college, which is based in part on tuition and fees.
The Department of Education has also asked the county to decrease the amount of financial assistance that it anticipates receiving from the state. The county had projected more than $2.9 million in state assistance for both operating and capital expenses in the first year, which would balloon to more than $5.1 million in the tenth year of the community college. Projections beyond the first year should not exceed $2.9 million, the state said, according to Lee.
It’s the second time this year that the state has requested additional information about the county’s application. In February, Erie County submitted a 31-page report to the special subcommittee that is reviewing the application. The supplemental report answered 25 follow-up questions from the county’s original application.
“The Department of Education is going to provide us a list of their questions (in writing) as it pertains to the financial section (of the application),” Lee said. “Once we submit that, they are going to continue on with the review process.”
Lee said he does not know how the proposed changes will affect the county’s financial plan for the community college.
“They really wanted us to look at those numbers,” he said. “It was a very positive conversation. My takeaway is that they really want that financial section to be reflective of what the conditions in our region may reflect.”
Joe Maloney, a certified public accountant who retired as Erie County Council’s longtime financial adviser this year, has been working with the county on the community college proposal. Maloney was on Wednesday’s conference call.
He said he also doesn’t yet know the full effect of the state’s recommendations.
“The concern would be that it would limit the growth (of the community college) in the future,” he said. “We’re not a mature community college. In the first year, yes, we may reduce the number of students, but if they are not going to help us grow to a mature community college with additional funding, that’s going to hurt.”
Lee and other county officials learned of the state’s concerns during a conference call Wednesday. That call was the result of inquiries Lee made to the State Board of Education and Department of Education about the status of the county’s application.
Erie County Council voted to sponsor the community college on June 27, 2017. Dahlkemper submitted the application to the state on June 30, 2017.
By sponsoring the community college, the county shoulders the financial responsibility for its operating expenses. Dahlkemper has said the college won’t be a burden on taxpayers and that it will be funded by a variety of sources, including gaming revenue and private and nonprofit investment. For example, the Erie Community Foundation has pledged $3.7 million.
County officials were hopeful the state would come to a decision by this past spring, a year after the application was submitted. But the proposal wasn’t discussed at the State Board of Education’s bimonthly meetings in May or July. Nor was it on the agenda when the board met earlier this month. Lee doesn’t expect that the board will make a decision at its November meeting, either.
“Initially we were looking at 12 months,” Lee said. “In all fairness to them, they haven’t done one in 25 years. They initially told us between 12 and 18 months, so we’re still within that timeline.”
Lee said he remains optimistic that the state will approve the county’s proposal for a community college, which would be the first in the state since the Pennsylvania Highlands Community College was formed in Cambria County in 1993. However, Lee said state officials Wednesday did not give any indication when a decision could be reached.
“It’s a process,” he said. “We need to make sure our application is in the best light as we work with the Department of Education.”
Maloney, in a separate interview, said, “We’ll try to fit the community college into their parameters.”
Matthew Rink can be reached at 870-1884 or by email.