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Prairie State College meeting financial challenges on ‘tight’ budget

Colleges and universities across Illinois are facing tough financial decisions because
of declining state support, but the president of Prairie State College (PSC) is
confident the school can meet the challenge.

Terri Winfree, president of PSC, acknowledges the school’s estimated $59.4 million
overall budget is “very tight” but she believes the community college serving
Homewood and Flossmoor will manage the financial constraints PSC is facing
because of the state’s budget crisis.

Under the Community College Act, PSC should be operating with one-third revenue
from local property taxes, one-third from state revenue and one-third from tuition,
but that isn’t the case.

“Over the years, our state support has been less, less, less which we’ve always
complained about,” Winfree said. “But in the situation we’re in right now we only
get 9 percent from the State of Illinois.”

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PSC’s budget extends July 1, 2015 through June 30, 2016. The 9 percent allocation of
$5 million in state revenue was expected but has not been paid since July 2015. The
9 percent is a 2.25 percent decrease from the college’s previous fiscal year
allocation.

Winfree said she’s thinking positively because trying to work around a 9 percent
gap is easier than dealing with a 24 percent funding drop that some community
colleges are facing.

She’s also hoping the Illinois legislature can come to terms soon on community
college funding bills that were proposed by both Democrats and Republicans in
January.

PSC is serving approximately 520 students from Homewood and Flossmoor this
semester. Overall, the college serves nearly 4,600 students who are taking academic
courses for an associate’s degree, or specific job training courses. Others come for
refresher courses or for personal interest.

PSC also offers developmental education programs for students trying to complete
GED requirements for a high school diploma, English as a Second Language courses
and a range of tutorials to give students the assistance they need to move into
college classes.

The PSC board approved the sale of tax anticipation warrants in January to meet
expenses until Cook County provides property tax revenues that this fiscal year total
about $12.9 million.

“We made some changes early on (in Gov. Bruce Rauner’s term), so that was very
helpful, and some of the cuts we made have been helpful,” including not filling
vacant positions and not hiring 32 part-time faculty this semester, she said. Budgets
have been reduced in operating, contractual services, travel, utilities and capital
outlays.

“We are hurting, yes. But I describe PSC as the ‘Little Engine That Could.’ What’s
happened is that a group of people (administrators and staff) come together and
they become creative and find new ways of doing things,” with cooperation and
innovation across departments, the president said.

The board closed down PSC’s Children’s Learning Center childcare program in
December, saving an estimated $200,000. Winfree says it was difficult because it
meant cutting 16 staff positions and a service that was open to the community, but
she couldn’t justify the subsidy to a program that had revenue shortfalls year after
year.

Winfree has been in various meetings with Rauner and Beth Purvis, Illinois’
education secretary. She continues to offer them input on Illinois’ 48 community
colleges, and especially about PSC students, the college’s operations and the
financial needs of both the college and its students. She wants to help the governor
and secretary understand the uniqueness and comprehensiveness of community
colleges.

“I do believe that he (Rauner) is sincere when he says he wants to fund us not only
where we’re at,” she said, “but he wants to first fix what he sees of the education
model and he wants to fund it at a higher level.”

Winfree said she knows PSC has the strong backing of local legislators, including
Reps. Al Riley and Anthony DeLuca and Sen. Toi Hutchinson, because they
understand PSC’s value to the community.

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