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June 13, 2024

CSCU, faculty union still at odds over spending plan

JESSIKA HARKAY / CT MIRROR CSCU faculty union members and students rally outside the building where the Board of Regents meets over funding on June 12, 2024.

A funding rally organized by union officials Wednesday marked the most recent example of the ongoing miscommunication between Connecticut State College and Universities administrators and the faculty unions as the higher education system navigates a tough budget season.

Anticipating a $140 million budget shortfall, mitigation efforts within the CSCU system included a 5% tuition hike and cuts to personnel, student services and course offerings in recent months. This legislative session, higher education stakeholders pleaded to lawmakers for additional funding to at least balance a $48 million deficit that remained after mitigation efforts were put in place.

The CSCU system, which is made up of a community college with 12 campuses, online Charter Oak State College and four regional universities, did not receive any adjustments in the state’s General Fund FY25 appropriations. The state budget stabilization bill in early May did, however, allocate an additional $80 million in federal COVID-19 relief funding — from $48.8 million to $128.8 million — in 2024-25.

In a spending plan presentation Wednesday afternoon, CSCU administrators said they plan to use most of the funding to cover union raises ($19 million) and deficits within its community college campuses ($41.3 million) and Western Connecticut State University ($6.3 million).

Another $5.8 million is expected to go toward the expansion of a free tuition community college program, while the remaining $7.6 million “will be going to the institutions to roll back some of the mitigation efforts,” Sam Norton, a spokesperson for CSCU, told The Connecticut Mirror.

But faculty and students were under the impression there was a significantly different plan Wednesday morning, prior to the presentation, as they rallied outside the Hartford building where the Board of Regents meets.

“We are here today because the managers in this building have told our unions that they will not use emergency funding for students. They will not use emergency funding to restore services that have been cut. They will not use the emergency funding to reverse tuition hikes,” said Seth Freeman, the president of the 4Cs, the union representing workers at the state’s community colleges. “We are here because Chancellor [Terrence] Cheng has told us he plans to sit on up to $60 million in emergency funding and ‘park it’ as he said — or save it for future years.”

Freeman later told the CT Mirror that union leaders were initially told that any unspent funds would be put into system reserves and that the plan being presented Wednesday afternoon was different than what was presented to staff.

“All we heard — to be clear when we met with them, which was last week — was that any leftover funds from last year and this year would go to reserves,” Freeman said. “What they’re presenting today, seems a little bit different from that. It’s still unclear how much of the unused [American Rescue Plan Act] funds from last year … [would go toward] restoring services. They’re still waffling on the tuition part.”

But Norton said that administrators had “been clear about how the funding would be used to address its budget deficit, cover the SEBAC wage reopener, and fund the expansion of Connecticut’s free tuition program.”

Freeman argued there’s still confusion about how much of the funds will remain unspent, whether they can get the state to cover union raises rather than have that taken out of emergency funding and whether the system may receive up to $20 million additional ARPA dollars that’s contingent on state budget projections.

“We think there’s anywhere between $26 million to $61 million of ARPA funding between last year and this year that can go toward reversing the tuition hikes and restoring cuts,” Freeman said. “There are still assumptions that [Office of Policy and Management] will not fully cover our wage increases, … and fundamentally there seems to be members of the board wanting to more conservative, or pessimistic, in terms of future state allocations, which is the opposite of what our unions are trying to do.”

Early this year, the university senate at Eastern Connecticut State issued and passed a vote of no confidence in Cheng, with concerns about transparency and how funding was being managed.

Freeman conceded that miscommunication and changes in the spending plan were “frustrating,” but that he didn’t “want to be too critical of that.”

“I don’t know how much control our managers have in terms of the shifting funds they’re dealing with, with OPM, governor’s office and other legislature,” Freeman said.

The conflict comes amid a new chair appointment to the Board of Regents Wednesday.

Governor Ned Lamont appointed Martin Guay, a board member since 2023, to replace current chair JoAnn Ryan, whose term expires June 30. Guay is vice president of business development at Stanley Black & Decker.

“Marty has spent his career in the manufacturing sector and understands the needs of businesses to have access to a workforce that is already trained with the skills needed for in-demand, good-paying jobs that are driving innovation and building economic opportunities,” Lamont said. “This aligns with CSCU’s overarching goals and efforts to partner with the business community so that when students graduate they can get started on the right track for successful, long-lasting careers.”

Freeman said he hopes a new chair will “lead the board in a direction focused on improving services for our students.”

“We hope that Chair Guay will do things differently than prior board leadership and views this is an opportunity to make sure the funding goes all through,” Freeman said. “We hope he uses his leadership position to advocate.”

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