Community college funding fair, but not adequate

On June 13 the Mail Tribune issued a call to reform the distribution formula for community colleges by asking the state Legislature to "fix the formula."

While the amount of funding is the most important issue, there is also concern over how those funds are distributed. The Legislature appropriates a level of funding, and the 17 community colleges determine the strategy to distribute the state support.

The strategic distribution is called the distribution formula (incorrectly referred to as the "funding formula"). The formula is a mathematical procedure to determine actual dollar amount for each college. It is based on the legislative appropriation (this biennium $500 million) and distributes that amount in a predetermined fashion.

While it is true that Rogue Community College is challenged by the formula, it is also true that in years past RCC has been advantaged by that same formula. To say the college is "penalized" is simply untrue.

Community colleges have three missions to complete. The colleges must serve transfer students (those continuing studies at a four-year institution), professional/technical students (those finding jobs after two years of education), and community education (generally non-credit, activity based courses).

The funding for these three activities comes mainly from two sources. The student pays through tuition and other fees, and the public pays through the tax system. Part of the public's responsibility comes from income taxes, and part from property taxes.

It is the property tax piece that seems unfair to some. Oregon's property tax system is a product of Measure 5, Measure 47 and Measure 50. In particular, Measure 50 limits the valuation rate on property to 3 percent per year. When property is sold, the sale price becomes the new assessed base. This translates to a property tax rate of 6 to 10 percent for growth area like Bend and Medford.

The lower statewide 3.5 percent rate reflects the norm. The difference between the 3.5 percent state average and the 8 percent local average is the portion that our local community college suffers an apparent disadvantage.

It is important to remember that tax revenues are not shifted to other colleges, but that an offset is created by the increased revenue of the property tax.

The distribution formula is created and maintained by a committee of community college professionals. This group includes representatives from college business offices, college presidents, college employee groups, the State Board of Education and the state Community College and Workforce Development. The committee works to assure each college has an opportunity to influence the calculation within the distribution formula.

A primary concern with the State Board of Education is that each Oregon community college receives an equitable amount for each student served. This is an objective that has not been implemented for many years and the State Board is very concerned about unequal student support between different districts. While one college agrees with the additional support, others disagree with claims of "penalties."

Every college and educational organization supports the principle of stable funding. The distribution formula is designed to provide a fair allocation of funds that are provided by the Legislature for the work that each community college accomplishes. The committee meets on a periodic basis to update formula. Determining the calculations of this formula should not be part of our political process. Small colleges like Rogue, Klamath and Umpqua would be severely disadvantaged if this were to happen. We would not have the voice or the influence we now have.

RCC is under-funded. There is a statewide disinvestment in higher education. But the problem is not in how the funds are distributed, but in how much is allocated for community college education.

If community colleges were funded at appropriate levels (around $620 million instead of $500 million) we would not be having this discussion. The resources are scarce and there is cause for concern both on a local level and on a statewide level.

Every college faces challenges and will need to work diligently to solve those problems. Deferring funding distribution to the legislators is reneging on our commitment to local control by transferring our problems to other groups.

We are best served by those who have a statewide community college perspective and can work to assist colleges on an individual basis.

Paul Fisher is president of the Oregon Education Association Community College UniServ Council. He lives in Ashland.

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