More than a year into what officials are calling a financial emergency largely tied to the coronavirus pandemic, Santa Fe Community College has cut five of its programs and laid off several staff members in a second round of workforce reductions.
The college announced in early May it would end its solar energy, exercise science, hospitality, fashion design, and architectural and interior design programs. It cut six filled positions and eight vacant jobs.
The news came shortly after the college’s governing board approved a $36.1 million budget for fiscal year 2022, with a $1.2 million shortfall caused by declines in revenue and rising costs. Officials said the program and staff cuts saved upward of $450,000, and a nearly $380,000 dip into cash reserves helped cover the difference.
Last year, the school lost $2 million in tuition and fees from declining enrollment.
“The outlook for tuition and fee revenues still remain at a very low amount,” said Nick Telles, vice president of finance.
The board had to declare an emergency to be able to begin making cuts in May 2020, he added. At that time, when the college campus remained closed in the early weeks of the pandemic, 80 workers were laid off.
With $7.8 million remaining in the school’s cash reserves — money necessary for short-term expenses and emergencies — some faculty representatives are questioning the need for so many cuts.
They are asking for clearer guidelines about the fiscal emergency, which gives the college president more control over staffing and program decisions that would ordinarily be open to challenges from the board, staff and the community.
“It gives the college carte blanche to take actions which they would not be able to do under normal conditions,” faculty union President Stephen DeGiulio said in a recent interview.
“I would hope that this can be regularized, and concrete criteria adopted and made mandatory that [requirements] have to be met in order for a financial emergency to be declared,” he added.
While the state Higher Education Department tracks key fiscal metrics for colleges, approves operating budgets and monitors cash reserves, it does not provide specific criteria for schools declaring financial emergencies.
Telles said in this case, declaring the emergency last year — and having the ability to lay off workers who couldn’t do their jobs with the campus closed — was key to preventing millions of dollars in projected losses.
“We’re currently moving forward to figure out how we will bring a bookstore back, and later food services,” Santa Fe Community College President Becky Rowley said in an interview.
While the college struggled with revenue losses due to a drop in enrollment, federal aid for colleges earmarked for one-time use provided little long-term help, officials said during a governing board meeting earlier this year.
Declining enrollment and closed facilities are familiar causes for financial crunches at higher learning institutions amid the pandemic. But a spokesperson at the Higher Education Department said the agency wasn’t aware of any other schools in the state that have declared a fiscal emergency, even as some remain on enhanced financial oversight plans.
Students at Santa Fe Community College won’t be able to major in programs that have closed, but classes on those topics will still be offered. Current students with declared majors in those programs will be able to finish their degrees.
The hospitality program, which has only one student with a declared major, was recommended for closure after a regular four-year audit process, according to the college. But the other programs were nixed after a special audit spurred by the pandemic.
The school evaluated cost, attendance, faculty numbers and job prospects for students in different programs, Rowley said.
“There are still programs with low enrollment that we’re running,” she said. “There were specific reasons why the ones we ended up terminating were selected for that.”
According to numbers provided by the college, there were just three students enrolled in the solar energy program at the time of the audit.
The head of the solar program, Xubi Wilson, said more students were engaged in it under other majors through the college’s School of Trades, Advanced Technologies and Sustainability.
Wilson, who’s been with the school for more than a decade and helped lead faculty unionization, is staying on as an adjunct professor.
Enrollment in the solar program was higher a few years ago but had slowed more recently, he said.
Meanwhile, solar energy companies that are struggling to fill positions, like Santa Fe-based Positive Energy Solar, are hoping to find ways to fill the solar education gap. The company sent a letter to the governing board May 11 expressing disappointment over the program’s closure.
Santa Fe Community College and Central New Mexico Community College are the only schools in the area that provide solar energy training, the company noted.
“While the job pool is struggling to find people for positions, there’s a growing number of solar companies as well,” said Christopher Fortson, Positive Energy Solar’s marketing director. “There are more companies operating here than ever.”
Wilson doesn’t believe the school had adequate reasons for cutting the solar program.
“I think it’s a mistake,” he said. “The solar program was one of the least expensive programs per degree and per credit hour.”
It’s not yet clear what kinds of decisions the school will make about criteria required for a fiscal emergency. At a recent board meeting, faculty senate chairwoman Kate McCahill said the group wanted to work with Rowley on setting it up.
“I do think it is something that we should look at,” Rowley said. “I don’t know the answers to those things. And I don’t have any specific recommendations to put forward right now.
“I really don’t like the way that we have to do this,” she added. “But it’s the way we have to do it.”