$300 million quickly for community colleges from state capital program: Is it for the right projects?

Billions of dollars are earmarked for dozens of community college campus projects in Illinois' capital improvement budget despite a more than 21% statewide drop in enrollment from 2014 to 2018.

That includes more than $300 million for two dozen community college projects expected to be fast-tracked as part of Gov. J.B. Pritzker's signature "Rebuild Illinois" campaign he signed into law late last month. The $45 billion campaign came with a series of tax increases, fee hikes and tax credit eliminations as well as a massive gambling expansion designed to raise revenue for the plan.

Community college officials are elated by the promise of long-awaited construction funds because the state has gone without a capital budget since 2010, but some watchdog groups are concerned the projects are outdated and question how projects were prioritized.

"This is all part of an overall concern about the lack of transparency in how the state prioritized spending in all the capital appropriations," said Laurence Msall, head of the Civic Federation, a nonpartisan government research organization that specializes in Illinois tax and financial policy. "It's hard to justify spending on these community college projects when we don't know how they stack up against other statewide needs."

Some of the funding requests were more than a decade old and might no longer be the college's greatest need, Msall suggested.

"There was no discernible process for what was evaluated by the legislature when they appropriated so much capital (funding) for colleges and universities," he said.

College of DuPage is getting nearly $3.3 million in Rebuild Illinois funds for "grounds and retention pond improvements," according to a report from the Illinois Community College Board. The project received priority funding over three other campus construction initiatives, which included additional classroom space and noise remediation in existing buildings. COD officials are also in the dark as to why it was chosen by the state.

"Several requests were made to the state for funding, and this is the project that the state selected," COD spokesman Brian Kleeman said.

Like almost every community college in the state, COD has seen enrollment drop in recent years.

ICCB Executive Director Brian Durham said capital improvements could spur enrollment growth.

"Capital projects provide community colleges with an important opportunity to modernize campuses and programs," he said. "Modernized facilities are bound to attract more students who can more clearly see the connection between these facilities and their future career."

Funding for all community college construction projects by the state is contingent on the colleges securing 25% of the total cost of the projects.

College of Lake County is in line for $26.7 million in Rebuild Illinois funds for a new 35,000-square-foot classroom building at its Vernon Hills campus. The CLC board is expected to vote on borrowing nearly $7 million to complete financing of the project.

Ken Gotsch, CLC's vice president of business services and finance, said the college surveyed employers in the region to determine "the workforce needs of the county." Ultimately, the new building will house health care vocational training for pharmacy technicians, physical therapy and occupational therapy students, and a few science classrooms.

Gotsch said the building wasn't the most pressing capital need for the college when it submitted projects to the state for funding, but it "ranked toward the top."

"That's where you have to trust the educational experts that they're going to build something that is needed," said Carol Portman, president of the Taxpayers' Federation of Illinois, a Springfield-based public finance efficiency organization. "Because they wouldn't want the embarrassment of creating something that isn't going to be used."

Oakton, Waubonsee and McHenry County colleges are also receiving priority funding for capital projects through Rebuild Illinois, but Elgin Community and Harper are not.

Harper officials weren't upset to have projects left off the Rebuild Illinois funding list because the state has promised other capital funding. A Harper spokeswoman applauded the legislature for having a capital spending plan in place for the first time in nearly a decade and touted plans for a "one-stop" building for hospitality, admissions and student life that was halted due to lack of funding in 2015.

"We're extremely pleased that each of Harper's capital projects including the Student One Stop Center was re-appropriated in this year's state budget," said spokeswoman Kim Pohl. "This facility will better serve our students, and the college's priority is to get these funds released as soon as possible."

In addition to the $300 million for the campus projects, the community college board also earmarked another $172 million to fund "deferred maintenance and emergency repairs" at community colleges as part of the Rebuild Illinois package. ICCB spokesman Matt Berry said since the state hasn't had a capital plan for nearly a decade, deferred maintenance funding was deemed a priority. Colleges can apply for a share of the funds.

"Some of these would have been less expensive to fix years ago, but we didn't have a budget then," he said.

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