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Community Colleges

Finding Financial Freedom

With unique financial circumstances, community colleges should follow collaborative and systematic approaches to budgeting.
University Business, Jan 2007

Financial resource allocation is a challenging process for two-year schools with great expectations but limited funds. This month, leaders from South Seattle Community College (Wash.) and Daytona Beach Community College (Fla.) illustrate their approaches to getting institutional priorities in order-and assembling budgets that follow suit.

Community colleges are in a continuous struggle to maximize the allocation and use of limited resources. Budgeting is a delicate decision-making process, requiring the balance of institutional mission and goals against environmental realities.

Leadership team members-such as the chief business officer, controller, and chief planning officer-make final decisions on resource allocation. But to account for the numerous nuances of the institution's everyday priorities, a systematic process achieves the best possible outcomes.

A collaborative process enables the college to rationally prioritize budget proposals.

Processes used at South Seattle Community College and Daytona Beach Community College produce a sense of ownership by faculty and staff of institutional decisions on resource allocation. They offer examples that leaders from any two-year school might consider utilizing.

South Seattle Community College is not unlike many community colleges. In four of the last five years, it has had a shrinking budget, due to a combination of increasing costs and decreasing revenue.

This past year, SSCC saw a small gain in its resource base, due to an increase in student population. Even with this small gain, SSCC's resources are still woefully inadequate to fund all of the proposals made by faculty, staff, and students. Because of this reality, the college has adopted a collaborative process that enables it to rationally prioritize budget proposals.

The process ensures input from all constituencies, from faculty to staff to administrators, community members, and students. Partly as a result of this openness, tough decisions the president has made have been well supported by the large majority of constituent groups.

The process used at SSCC is based on two core ideas: the collaborative development of and vigilant adherence to the "College Priorities," and the value given to the college council as it manages and oversees the budget process.

SSCC is funded on a biennial calendar by the state, so its strategic planning and budgeting process are structured around it. Every two years, the president's cabinet-in consultation with the college's formal strategic planning group, the various division councils, the college council, student government, environmental scanning and demographic studies, and other constituent groups-reviews the mission and primary goals of the college to distill the short-term vision down to a few easy-to-articulate and clear priorities.

For example, for 2005-2007, SSCC adopted two priorities:

Support student success and learning

Ensure the college's financial health

These priorities were developed as decision-making aids throughout the budget process and also in the course of the institution's daily work. The president and vice presidents emphasize these priorities in nearly every major meeting and public appearance. During the budget development process, requests for new or continued funding must fit directly in line with one or both of these priorities in order to gain approval.

The College Council plays a central role in the budget process by considering proposals in a transparent manner. The council is composed equally of administrators, faculty (full and part time), staff, and students, and it's intended to be an advisory group to the president.

During the second half of the academic year, the council's focus becomes managing the budget development process. With the support of the Business Office, the council conducts hearings in which all administrators present their budget requests for consideration. These hearings are open to the college community.

The council is charged with helping the president determine which requests are most closely aligned with the "College Priorities." The president receives the recommendations and then deliberates with the executive team before making a final decision. A public meeting is then held in which the council first presents its recommendations, followed by a response from the president with an executive decision.

Throughout this process, the president keeps the college community informed on issues likely to impact budget decisions, such as legislative actions, demographic shifts, cost increases, and program changes. With transparency about challenges and opportunities and information sharing with staff, faculty, and students, the process allows for a better understanding of issues the college is facing. The community is therefore generally supportive of difficult decisions that need to be made.

SSCC's process has been refined over the last five years; improvements continue to be made. It's become clear to the community that, through the structured process in which information is shared and decisions are made, the college has been able to take giant steps toward achieving its mission and goals. The major beneficiaries of this rational, inclusive decision-making process: the students and community.

Daytona Beach Community College has also developed an effective approach to resource allocation with a focus on selecting operational priorities for funding that support the college's strategic goals.

Being transparent about challenges and opportunities helps win community support for tough decisions.

For DBCC, the solution involves its Planning Council and committees that directly involve 20 percent of the institution's approximately 900 full-time employees. The council, which is chaired by the college's chief planning officer, works at the center of the resource allocation process. It has 30 members, with a mandatory 50 percent faculty representation and representation from all other employee groups. Eleven committees deal with all aspects of the college's operations, ranging from teaching and learning to program review to human resources, diversity, and technology. Each committee has two co-chairs and 15 to 20 committee members.

DBCC's strategic plan and priorities, from which an annual plan is developed, provide a guiding framework for the council and committees. The annual plan shapes their recommendations and is also shaped by the final priorities.

Each fall, the Planning Council develops planning assumptions based on an ongoing scan of factors likely to impact college operations, enrollment, and funding. The assumptions are presented to the Planning Council committees to use in proposal development. Each committee develops and presents proposals to the council against the backdrop of these assumptions.

Proposals may include recommendations on spending new funds or the reallocation of existing funds. The council reviews the proposals, debates their relative importance, and ultimately places them in priority order for recommendation to the president's cabinet and the president. The higher the priority assigned to a proposal, the greater the likelihood of funding.

The president, with the cabinet's support, has committed to following the council recommendations and has been steadfast in maintaining that commitment, funding in priority order as many recommendations as available funds allow.

When the president and cabinet accept the Planning Council recommendations, budget alignment occurs.

In the early years of using the process, the number of proposals was high, and in some cases they were only marginally related to the college's strategic plan and priorities. But with President D. Kent Sharples' charge that "if a group of committed employees are given the best information possible, they will make the best decisions for the institution," the council was able to sort through and assign top priorities to the proposals most important to the institution.

As a result, the number of proposals has fallen while their quality has risen. The Planning Council sent forth 38 proposals this past year, all of which were funded.

Thanks to broad employee involvement, open communication, and a tiered process for input, South Seattle Community College and Daytona Beach Community College have achieved successful budgeting processes. Even in tough times, both institutions have found ways to clarify goals and assign resources accordingly.

Laura Phillips is associate VP/controller at Daytona Beach Community College and a Community College Business Officers board member. Charles Carroll is senior VP, planning, development, and institutional effectiveness at DBCC. Kurt Buttleman is VP, administrative services at South Seattle Community College and a CCBO board member.

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