Budget impasse leaves students, colleges in the lurch

  • By Peter Sachs
  • Staff Writer
  • July 01, 2009 @ 11:00 AM

The state budget impasse in Springfield has college administrators and students alike waiting to see how much funding they’ll get.

The City Colleges of Chicago, like all other community colleges in the state, gets a large portion of its budget from state funds. But with no state budget on this first day of the new fiscal year, and with the prospect of large across-the-board cuts unless legislators raise taxes,  the City Colleges is waiting to see what will happen and is giving few specifics in the mean time.

“The City Colleges is still evaluating what the possible impact of budget cuts will be,” district spokeswoman Elsa Tullos said yesterday, before the legislature’s midnight deadline.

If cuts in state funding are made, those cuts could touch everything from workforce development and remedial education classes to construction of new buildings, like the parking garage and student center going up at Truman College.

For now, the City Colleges can continue operating without a new budget. Under state law, it can continue using last year’s budget through September before it must pass a new budget.

But the problem isn’t simply with the lack of a new budget, says Ellen Andres, the chief financial officer of the Illinois Community College Board. A lack of cash in state coffers means that the state missed making payments to community colleges statewide in February and May.

And that means districts didn’t get half of the money last year they had expected. That has forced some districts to borrow money in the short term to make up for that, Andres says.

“If they passed a budget last night, then you could have a comfort level of knowing how much money you have to plan for the next year, but you still have a cash flow problem,” Andres says.

Students are also getting squeezed by the state’s budget problems.

The lack of a new state budget means no relief for Monetary Award Program grants for low-income college students. The Illinois Student Assistance Commission, which hands out the grants, approved a plan last week to give students about 85 percent of their full awards for the fall term, but to cut off funding entirely for the spring term.

For the 137,000 students statewide getting the grants, that means awards as high as $5,000 per student could end up being less than $2,000 for the year.

“Absent new revenue, this is what the scenario would be,” ISAC spokesman Paul Palian said last week. “So all (funding is for the) first semester, and nothing for second, which is awful, but at least it gives people time to make plans.”

The commission has remained hopeful that even if the legislature waits until the end of the summer or the fall to address the funding gap, more grant money could become available in time to help students for the spring term.

With the legislature now adjourned and with no date set for it to meet again, students and colleges both may have to keep waiting.

Daily News Staff Writer Peter Sachs covers higher education. He can be reached at 773.362.5002, ext. 18, or peter [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.