Olympic College officials bracing for possible budget cuts

With a $1.6 billion shortfall in the state budget — that’s “billion” with a “b” — community colleges such as Bremerton’s Olympic College may feel the pinching of state pennies.

According to Dr. Michael Connolly, vice president of OC administration, a $1.3 million stimulus package for the college could be in jeopardy — depending on what the Senate and House decide. The House’s 60-day session ends March 14.

Statewide, the economic stimulus package provides $26 million for repairs and upgrades at community and technical colleges.

“This provides $26.3 million of critically needed projects at 26 of our campuses,” said Earl Hale, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

“These projects are well thought out,” Hale said. “They enhance the stewardship ... of our system. as well as providing benefits to our students.”

Sen. Betti Sheldon, D-Bremerton, calling from the Senate floor Thursday, said the issue of higher-education cuts was scheduled to come up yesterday or today.

“We’re making cuts everywhere,” she said. “It’s a battle ... with a $1.6 billion shortfall.

“At this point there are no taxes proposed,” she said. “What finally comes down “will not please anybody.”

She added OC’s new Poulsbo campus is already funded through last year’s budget.

Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, also calling from the floor of the House, said so far, the governor has proposed a 3 percent cut in higher education, the Senate agreed with this, and the House wants a 2 percent cut. Overall, the House wants $50 million cut, the governor $60 million and the Senate $90 million.

“Although the House is asking for a big cut, it’s still better than the other two,” Rockefeller said.

No one wants to cut funds for enrollment, he added.

As for cuts in general for services throughout the state, Rockefeller was philosophical: “We’re trying to spread the pain.”

Gov. Gary Locke’s budget proposal, announced in December, was based on a $1.2 billion shortfall — before the new revenue forecast. Now, the governor is considering across-the-board cuts to state agencies in the range of 5 percent to 6 percent on top of cuts proposed in December, according to an OC spokeswoman.

While the national economy is showing signs of recovery, Washington State’s economy is still deteriorating, said Chang Mook Sohn, the state’s chief economist, to members of the Board for Community and State Colleges, according to board spokeswoman Lorna Sutton.

Sutton said Sohn went on to tell the board that aerospace, construction and dot.coms were the three weakest industries. Sutton also reported that the state’s Employment Security Department found that Washington’s jobless rate has climbed to 8.2 percent.

The irony of cuts falling on OC and other colleges was best expressed by interim OC President Dr. Diana Van Der Ploeg.

Ploeg said community and technical colleges are part of the solution to budget shortfalls. She said training and education offers the quickest relief to the state’s financial dilemma.

“Currently, businesses and industries in Washington state need an infusion of confident and competent employees,” Van Der Ploeg said in a press release. “Olympic College offers a variety of refresher and short-term training solutions to help people get back to work. In addition, capital improvements, much needed on this older campus, offer an infusion to the construction industry.”

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