Heeding pressure from the state Capitol, the community college programs in Meriden will remain open after all, the college system’s president announced Wednesday.
But he said he’s depending on the state to fund the campuses.
Connecticut State Colleges & Universities President Gregory Gray said he is depending on legislators to restore state funding for the system that the governor’s proposed budget cuts.
“Because of the faith that I am putting in the legislators and the trust that we are providing, I am hereby announcing that we are abandoning our decision to close the Meriden Center as well as the manufacturing center,” Gray told his governing board during a meeting at Eastern Connecticut State University.
“We put our faith and trust in the legislators who have the ability to do what they think is right, and we certainly are going to support their request and as a result be ahead of this power curve,” said Nicholas Donofrio, chairman of the Board of Regents.
Gray angered several state legislators in recent weeks after he decided to close the Meriden satellite campuses of Middlesex Community College without public input or a vote of the system’s governing board.
The state House of Representatives and Senate responded by voting over the last two weeks to bar the college system from closing any campus without legislative approval.
Gray told reporters after the board meeting that the bill was “bad legislation,” saying that if a tornado hit Eastern Connecticut State University he would need the legislature’s approval to close the campus.
Asked about the future of the Meriden campuses if state funding is ultimately cut as the governor recommends, Gray said he will follow the law.
“We will somehow follow the statutes,” he said.
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy has not yet signed the bill, and it is unclear whether he will do so.
The Democratic governor’s proposed budget recommends closing the state’s deficit by cutting support to the 12 community colleges and four regional state universities that make up the CSCU system by $20.5 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1. However, college leaders report that leaves them with a $51.6 million budget gap to fund the present level of services and programs. They have said they would close the gap with a combination of budget cuts and tuition increases.
The General Assembly has until June 3 to adopt a state budget, and the legislature’s budget-writing committee will release its proposed budget before the end of the month.
Legislative leaders have been non-committal during interviews on whether funding will be restored to the college system as they work to close a projected $1.3 billion state deficit.
“I can’t promise anything,” House Speaker J. Brendan Sharkey, D-Hamden, said Tuesday. “The legislature is going to produce a budget that reflects input from the public and the affected agencies.”
Rep. Roberta Willis, the House chairwoman of the legislature’s higher education committee, said she is not holding out a lot of hope lawmakers will be coming to the rescue to close the college’s projected deficit.
Gray is more optimistic.
“On the positive side, however,” Gray said, “is that in talking with legislators who were somewhat annoyed about this, they did pledge their continued support. I guess no one can say what the budget is going to look like when it’s ultimately done, but the legislators that I talked with said I want to help you, the Board of Regents.”
But Larry DeNardis, a regent and former republican congressman, pointed out that the legislature continues to pass bills that cost the college system money and doesn’t provide the necessary funding.
On Wednesday — the same day the House voted to restrict the president from closing a campus without their approval — the Senate voted to require the regents to study the support they provide veterans.
“How dare they take those actions in the same day,” he said.
State funding to support the sprawling network of schools has been on a roller coaster over the last several years. Facing an historic $3.7 billion budget shortfall in 2012, state lawmakers reduced funding to the system by 10 percent. But funding has since rebounded, and last year the state spent $522.7 million on the colleges — more than in any of the five previous years.
While members of the Board of Regents are divided on whether they should have voted before the decision was made to close the Meriden campuses, the chairman supported the president having that authority.
“Let me just compliment Greg and the team and [the president of Middlesex Community College] for having done what they thought was correct,” said Donofrio.
The regents are planning to adopt a budget for the college system next month, which will be before the state budget is finalized. A spokesman for the college system said the system’s budget probably will not assume an infusion of funding from the state.
The president of Middlesex Community College said she plans on presenting several scenarios for cuts at her school based on various state funding levels.
Sen. Danté Bartolomeo, the senate chairwoman of the higher education committee, celebrated the announcement from Gray.
“This is an incredible victory for the students of Middlesex Community College, and for downtown Meriden,” the Democrat from Meriden said. “When we learned of this plan, students and legislators rallied to keep the school open, and today it was announced that our voices were heard.”