Senate Votes To Block Closure Of Meriden Satellite Campus [Courant]

April 9, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

HARTFORD — The Senate voted Wednesday to block the planned closure of the Meriden branch of Middlesex Community College, and then went further by voting for an amendment stating that no campus of a state college could be closed without legislative approval.

The planned closure of the Meriden campus alarmed students and legislators, who said it would hurt students. College officials said the closure was necessary because of budget cuts proposed by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy.

Although the Senate amendment passed Wednesday would block the Meriden campus closure, the legislature has still not voted on Malloy’s two-year, $40 billion proposed budget. The legislature’s budget-writing committee is expected to make overall recommendations by late April, and a final budget compromise is not expected until late May or early June.

The precise level of education funding will not be decided for months, and advocates for numerous programs have been arriving at the Capitol asking legislators to avoid making cuts to their programs. The Senate amendment regarding the Meriden branch also needs approval from the House of Representatives and from Malloy.

After the Meriden campus amendment passed, the Senate took another step Wednesday by passing a second amendment saying that none of the campuses in the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities system could be closed without approval by the legislature. That amendment passed on a bipartisan voice vote. Senators said they were sending a signal that no major decisions can be made without their approval.

Senate Republican leader Len Fasano of North Haven said that only legislators can make such policy changes and major budget cuts.

“We have given up total control to the Board of Regents,” Fasano said on the Senate floor. “I take this as a threat to us. I object to that threat. We do policy, not you. … We should react. We should send a message. That’s our call. That’s our decision.”

Sen. Dante Bartolomeo, a Meriden Democrat, pushed for the Meriden amendment. She said she spoke recently to a student who attends the Meriden campus and “The closure would mean the end of her dreams.”

But Sen. Kevin Witkos, a Canton Republican, and Sen. Rob Kane, R-Watertown, both said the Senate should be careful about premature votes on state programs without looking at the overall budget.

“There’s an old saying: Don’t make promises that you can’t keep,” Kane said on the Senate floor. “We’re making a commitment that we’re keeping the campus open, but when the deadline occurs, maybe the money is not in there.”

Witkos said: “This building has been bombarded with folks coming here to restore cuts in the budget. Unless we have massive tax increases, we’re not going to restore all the money. We shouldn’t be making any promises.”

“For me, it’s very difficult that we’re picking one college out of the 17 to say: ‘This is preserved,’ ” Witkos said earlier in the debate. “I think that’s a very dangerous precedent. What about the Department of Social Services office in Torrington? What about the Governor’s Horse Guard? This is tough. What I would prefer is the Board of Regents to go back and see if they can preserve this. We certainly didn’t get the heads-up on the closure.”

Witkos said he favored the amendment that would block the closure of any campus in the system without legislative review.

Besides Bartolomeo, the entire Meriden delegation, including Reps. Emil “Buddy” Altobello and Catherine Abercrombie, was lobbying heavily in favor of the Meriden campus.

Both Republicans and Democrats said they should not allow the closure of the satellite campus and a manufacturing program that is also in Meriden. They said that was a policy decision that should be made by the legislature rather than by the Board of Regents, which oversees the community colleges.

Bartolomeo said she blames Gregory Gray, president of the Board of Regents, for the proposed closure rather than Middlesex Community College administrators.

“The Board of Regents as the oversight authority has the responsibility to understand the implications of any of their actions,” Bartolomeo said. “On a Sunday, President Gray gave each institution its projected budget and said make this work by Tuesday. Why on earth would you put your college presidents in that position?”

But spokesman Michael Kozlowski said that top Middlesex officials made the decision on the closure and then got Gray’s approval. The CSCU central office informs the colleges how much money they will have, and then the college administrators make the on-site decisions, he said.
Regarding the plan to shut down the Meriden campus, Kozlowski said, “[Gray] approved that as part of a larger package. There are really no good alternatives in the budget-making process.”
Bartolomeo said the bill as approved by the Senate Wednesday is a statement that campus closures are unacceptable. She said that although funding was not a part of the bill, colleges must find other budget cuts without disenfranchising students.

“They cannot use a budget shortfall as a justification for closing a campus or manufacturing program,” Bartolomeo said.

Middlesex Community College students on Monday said that if the Meriden Center location were to close, they would face difficulty continuing their courses on the Middletown campus because of transportation issues. About 250 of the 638 students enrolled in Meriden courses live in Meriden and either walk or use public transportation to take classes, students and administrators said.

The Meriden location and a manufacturing program in a separate location in Meriden cost the college $491,301 in nonstaff costs, such as rent, utilities and maintenance. The college said it had an $880,000 deficit to make up for in the next fiscal year.

Middlesex Community College President Anna Wasescha could not be reached for comment Wednesday.