House to vote on closing campuses without legislative okay

State lawmakers are scheduled to vote Tuesday on whether to forbid closing community college campuses in Meriden — or any campus — without their approval.

“It will definitely be brought up tomorrow,” said Rep. Roberta Willis, the House chairman of the committee that oversees higher education.

A top official in the House Speaker ‘s office confirmed the bill will be raised in the state House of Representatives during Tuesday’s session.

The bill was put forward in the Senate last week after Connecticut State Colleges & Universities President Gregory Gray signed off without previous public notice on closing the downtown Meriden campuses, which serve 700 students

The college system’s governing board, The Board of Regents, had not voted to approve the closure.

The Meriden facilities are satellite campuses of Middlesex Community College in Middletown and include a program in manufacturing.  Students would have to travel to Middletown to take courses.

The Senate voted unanimously to block the closure. The Board of Regents is expected to meet Wednesday but the agenda does not now include whether to offer courses again in Meriden next semester.

In a letter to Gray on Monday, the Democratic leaders of the Senate — President Pro Temp Martin Looney of New Haven and Majority Leader Bob Duff of Norwalk — expressed their continued frustration.

“The State Senate took action on April 8, 2015, to clarify that balancing the budget of the Regents system solely on the backs of vulnerable students will not be tolerated,” they wrote. “It is troubling to read news accounts that indicate that the message is still not being heard by the administration of our 17-member higher education system. We urge you to reconsider your position. We urge you to begin to put the needs of students first.”

College leaders have maintained that the closure is necessary to help the college system close a $51.6 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The Regents already have voted to raise tuition by 4.8 to 5.3 percent to close the deficit by $22 million.

A spokesman for the system said the Meriden closure was expected to save $500,000 in the fiscal year that begins July 1, though lawmakers have questioned their math.

“The numbers don’t even work out,” said Sen. Danté Bartolomeo of Meriden, the senate chair of the higher education committee.

A breakdown on how the savings would be achieved has not been released.

Erika Steiner, the budget chief for the college system, told members of the Regent’s finance committee after the Senate vote that finding alternatives to closing the satellite campuses would be a struggle.

“A campus the size of Middlesex, with that big of a budget gap, is going to be hard-pressed to look at attrition or other simple ways of filling that kind of gap. So we need to talk with [that community college president] to see what other type of ideas she might have.” Middlesex Community College serves 3,000 students in all..

Michael Kozlowski, CSCU spokesman, said higher education leaders should have an idea in the next seven to ten days whether the school can avoid closing the campuses and still balance its budget.

“We are continuing to look at all of the options to address the Middlesex Community College budget gap, including keeping the Meriden Center open,” he said during an interview. “Pulling that off the table leaves a substantial gap in the savings needed…The only place left to look would be our labor costs.”

Having faced budget gaps in previous years, Anna Wasescha, the president of Middlesex Communty College, said the school already has eliminated its daycare center for students with children and stopped offering courses for residents who want to learn to speak English.

“We made the best choice among a lot of lousy choices.” Wasescha said last week.

Leaders from the 16 other regional universities and community colleges also have compiled plans to close their budget deficits and plan to meet with Gray over the next two weeks to decide what will be included in the budget that is presented to the Board of Regents.

It is unclear whether any other college presidents have proposed closing a campus, and requests by The Mirror for those budget proposals have been denied. Aside from the 16 main campuses, there are satellite community college campuses in Bristol, Danbury and Willimantic.

State lawmakers have questioned the authority of the college president to close a campus without the approval of his governing board. The bill the House will consider Tuesday would make clear it is not his decision.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, a Democrat, said last week that he is not thrilled with how this decision was handled.

“There’s a probability things could have been better handled. I think that’s a probability,” Malloy said of the regents, and then turned to the action the Senate took. “On the other hand,” he said, “two mistakes don’t make a right.”

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