CARTERVILLE — April’s consolidated election will see the vacancy of two spots on the John A. Logan College Board of Trustees, and four candidates have stepped up to fill them.
It has been an eventful year for JALC. In March of 2016 the Board of Trustees announced it would be laying off 55 employees, the majority of whom were teaching staff, in response to the state’s ongoing budget impasse, which has reduced school funding to a trickle. The school received $4.3 million in funding last year as the result of a stopgap spending measure passed by the state legislature. JALC’s vice president of business services, Brad McCormick, said this would have gotten the school through March or April of this year were it not for the extra nearly $1 million raised, which will see them through the end of their fiscal year on June 30. He also said the college is operating at 10 percent under budget.
All four candidates felt qualified to help get the college through the lean times, however long they last.
Bob Ellis, of West Frankfort, said the state’s budget problems are not unique to any one school and he does not consider it to be an excuse for poor school conditions or decision-making.
“I always say, ‘poor baby,’” Ellis said, addressing the funding complaint. “Everybody is in the same situation.” He added that it will take unique and pragmatic thinking to get the school back in fiscal order. He said looking at wasteful spending, particularly with contracts, is a good place to start saving money.
“I think people have a tendency to pay too much and that’s where an executive has to step in with the gavel,” Ellis said. As former finance commissioner and mayor of West Frankfort, Ellis said he has seen a certain disregard when public officials spend taxpayer money. Ellis said this needs to stop.
“You have to make them care,” he said.
Tightening up wasteful spending is chief on William Orril’s agenda, as well.
“What we have to do … I believe is we have to evaluate every program that John A. Logan has, and look at where possible savings can be made, but we also have to increase enrollment,” he said. Orill, of Carbondale, said he is uniquely qualified to deal with the scant state spending. He serves as president of the board of trustees for Therapy Center of Southern Illinois, which is also owed state funds.
“It’s not just Logan College, it’s everybody,” he said.
Rebecca Borgsmiller, of Carterville, a former JALC trustee, said the school needs to find new ways of generating revenue that could offset some of the state funding. The choices may not be easy to make, but for her, most everything is on the table.
“Do I want to raise tuition? No. Do I want to raise taxes? No. But I think we have to consider every option out there,” Borgsmiller said. As an example, she proposed potentially increasing class sizes, which would reduce the number of sections taught or posing the question to faculty of taking on an extra class, at least until the state passes a complete budget, whenever that is. Until then, she says she wants to find ways of doing more with less.
“I just think we have to learn to be leaner and meaner, if you will,” Borgsmiller said.
Mandy Little, of West Frankfort, was not far behind. She has a particular litmus test for where to start looking at budget reductions or cuts.
“Anything that does not directly relate to a student’s success in the classroom, in my opinion, should be one of the first things that we look at in terms of ways that we can save money,” she said. She offered athletics as an example, acknowledging that the department has seen significant cuts already.
“We recruit quite a few athletes who are from out of the district and out of the state,” Little said, explaining that the school provides lodging and helps with bills for these students. Little said maybe the school should recruit less from these areas
“If we were recruiting a lot more local athletes, then I think there would be a reduction of costs in the athletic department,” she said.
Little thinks this can happen in every area on campus.
“Is there a way it can cost us less without eliminating it completely,” she said, offering the examples of moving the campus toward being paper-free or finding ways to reduce postage. Little said all these seem small separately, but together they can be substantive.
One thing none of the candidates wanted to see was more layoffs as a cost-saving measure. Little has received two associate degrees from the college and thinks last year’s layoffs need to be reversed as quickly as possible.
“We need to look at every single nook and cranny and see what the best way is that we can bring back as many full time faculty as quickly as possible,” Little said.
“As soon as money is available, it’s my belief, that all of the people that were laid off at Logan College need to be hired back,” he said. He added that certainly no other faculty or staff should be let go.
Little said from where she stands, the board has lost perspective of what their core mission should be.
“I think that the board has lost a little bit of focus on what their primary objective is, which is to provide a quality education to the students at an affordable price,” Little said. She said laying off so many employees, particularly the full-time teaching staff, directly impacts this mandate.
Ellis said while the layoffs were unsettling, he chooses not to focus on the past.
“I don’t think any candidate should go in thinking about those problems they have had in the past,” he said, adding that he wants to look ahead.
Restoring good faith
The community uproar over last year’s layoffs was substantial. There were protests and marathon board meetings. People were angry, and as a result the college lost some face. The candidates all felt there was a road back. One central theme in this is transparency.
One of the biggest complaints last year was that, to some, it appeared the JALC board acted without a lot of outside input. Borgsmiller was one such person and this runs counter to her thinking. In her understanding, there was no involvement of the faculty association last year when layoffs were decided upon by the board.
“We don’t know if they would have made some concessions that might have been able to keep some positions at the college that were rift,” she said. Borgsmiller said this shows a fault in leadership. “If you don’t give them an opportunity to make concessions or work with you, that’s a failure in the process in my opinion.”
Little said restoring the faith of students and faculty will go a long way to healing bad blood.
“You bring back their teachers and the students know you have their backs, so to speak,” Little said, adding that faculty would feel supported, too.
Ellis said he believes transparency is the answer.
“Any board needs transparency,” he said, specifically when it comes to layoffs. “As far as the philosophy of layoffs are concerned, that should be open and transparent,” Ellis said.
Orrill also stressed this.
“We also have to improve communication and transparency to the general public,” he said of his plan to improve community relations and restore good faith in JALC.
The bottom line
Providing an education is the primary function of John A. Logan College and for all of the candidates, the students need to be the focus of everything the board does.
“I think that when the college handed out rift notices last year … I think that made it clear that the students were not at the forefront,” Little said.
Borgsmiller also stressed keeping students in mind, which took her back to the layoffs.
“The best way to enhance the student experience is to have qualified, passionate people in the classroom,” she said. Students are not likely to remember who the president or board members were in their time at the school but Borgsmiller said they will remember instructors that bring the subject to life.
Orrill said he can’t imagine Southern Illinois without the job engines of John A. Logan College and SIU and said he will focus on keeping JALC a meaningful part of the community.
“We have to keep them viable and we have to keep them focused on the future,” Orrill said.
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March 23, 2017 at 10:07PM