Financial instability causes changes for college

Amarillo College President Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart discusses financial policies at a board of regents earlier this year with assistant Brenda Sadler at his side.
Amarillo College President Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart discusses financial policies at a board of regents earlier this year with assistant Brenda Sadler at his side.

Amarillo College is going through a financial crisis as it’s being forced to cut its budget by more than $3 million in order to survive for years to come. “We lost $3.5 million from the state and our enrollment is down, and it’s forced us to grow up and make some tough choices,” said AC President Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart. The Texas Legislature has been cutting funds for community colleges such as AC for years, but legislators have made a major cut by reducing funding drastically. College administrators have created a plan to make sure the college will be able to function without depending so heavily on state funding. “It’s not easy,” Lowery-Hart said. “It’s not something that I wanted to do, and I’m sure it’s not something any of us wanted to have to do, but we’ve defined a process that we think it’s the most honoring of our faculty and staff.”

There are several parts to the president’s plan, which has been approved by the board of regents, but the first part is a retirement incentive proposed by Lowery-Hart earlier this semester. The retirement incentive, or buyout, consists of offering people who are eligible to retire an incentive of $100 per month of service to the college if they will retire. According to Lowery-Hart, 83 faculty members are eligible for the buyout, and as of last week 31 of those people had confirmed their retirement. The college will save more than $2 million from that preliminary list. The candidates have until Monday to turn in their decision on the buyout, and then the president will calculate those savings with his five-year budget projection software. “My goal is that we will have a clear picture of what we will look like by the end of January,” he said, “but I can’t begin that process until we finish this buyout process, and that deadline is Dec. 7.” Some people think the uncertainty is affecting the overall environment of the college and may affect the way students feel about their education at AC. Lowery-Hart said he wouldn’t want students to feel negative about the college.

“I think there’s a lot of fear, and I don’t like that,” he said. “My goal in this process is to manage it in such a way that students were never drawn into the drama of it.” With a significant number of faculty members leaving AC at once, there will be positions that will have to be filled and the percentage of adjunct, or part-time, faculty will increase. Currently, AC is made up of 70 percent full-time employee and 30 percent part-time instructors. In Texas, the average is 40 percent full-time to 60 percent part-time. Mark Hanna, director of the AC library, is taking the incentive after more than 30 years of serving AC. During his time here, he said has seen how the college has been through changes over the years. While the effect on the quality of education is yet to be seen, Hanna said AC seems to have a tradition.

“Amarillo College has felt traditionally that students get better quality instruction if they are taught by full-time people,” Hanna said. While some positions might be replaced by adjunct faculty, other will not be replaced at all, and whole departments will have to reorganize and redistribute duties with the faculty they have. Hanna said the fact that the Legislature is cutting funding to community colleges is not a new thing and has been a problem former college presidents have had to deal with as well.He remembered a meeting for community colleges he attended with former AC President Steven Jones around 2006 in Austin where some legislators clearly said they do not want to fund colleges at all. Lowery-Hart said the college has to get ready to deal with this change that has been going on for several years. “I’ve looked at a 15-year budget projection, and my goal is to reduce my reliance on state funding by a percentage every year that in 15 years we could live without state funding,” he said.

During his term, Lowery-Hart has created new job titles to help him with his new model. He said he has not spent more money with the positions but saved because some of them combined two into one. “I’ve taken positions that are around the budget and I’ve retitled and reorganized them so there’s no new money,” he said. “So just because there is a new title doesn’t mean that there is a new position. It just means I’ve reorganized positions that were already in the institution.” The college not only is trying to cut the budget but trying to raise revenue as well. “In the last 16 months since I’ve been in this role, we’ve probably raised around $3 million in gifts from the community that we’ve never had before,” Lowery-Hart said. Brookelan Garcia, a nursing major, said that while there may not be many options when it comes down to a budget crisis, the college still should provide the necessary services to students. “Maybe they can cut from somewhere else that couldn’t affect whether students come (here) or not,” Garcia said.

With the president’s retirement incentive, reorganization and reclassification process or even reduction in force, AC has to find way to stabilize the financial crisis that has the AC community with an unclear vision of the future. Lowery-Hart said he is positive the college will get through this. By the end of next semester, he said, he hopes all the fear has subsided and instead the attention is on reaching the goal of a 70 percent completion rate. “When we can start talking about our learning rather than our job security, that’s when the college will move forward in positive ways,” he said.

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