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Q&A: Tony Zeiss

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Tony Zeiss to pols: Don’t kill the goose that lays the golden egg

Sometime next week, Central Piedmont Community College officials are expected to make their case to the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners for $124 million to be placed on a fall bond referendum. The money would be for 10 projects to be started over three years.

If commissioners placed that request on the November ballot and voters approved it, the money would go a long way in meeting needs, says CPCC President Tony Zeiss. It’s likely to be even more critical if community college cuts in Gov. Pat McCrory’s budget get legislative approval. The budget cuts $20 million in funding for enrollment in the community college system.

For CPCC, that will hurt because enrollment keeps growing. Since 2007, the school’s enrollment is up 35 percent but its funding is down 25 percent, Zeiss said. CPCC turns away 5,000 students a year, he said, because they run out of money for teachers. And cuts come as CPCC ramps up addressing job needs – something McCrory has emphasized. This year, the school started using a software application called Career Coach, which allows students to find out what jobs are available in the community, even what salary they will likely make. They can then match their degree or certificate to jobs or professions in demand.

Zeiss and CPCC administrators Deborah Bouton and Marcia Conston talked with Associate Editor Fannie Flono this week about the college’s value and challenges. Below are excerpts from Zeiss’ comments.

Q. When was your last bond issue?

Zeiss: 2007, for $44 million. But we have a verifiable need for $430 million right now in our facilities master plan. And that carries us out five years. We know the county doesn’t have all the money we need. So we’re asking for the 10 top projects, which is $124 million for the next three years. We’ll go before the county sometime this month.

We’re already down to 58 percent of the space we need because there’s been a freeze on construction. So, we’re going in fora bond issue. We have to. We’re turning students away because we don’t have enough laboratories. Take health care. The hospitals are desperate for people but we only have so many anatomy physiology labs but that’s a prerequisite course. So you’ve got a bottleneck.

Q. How many students are at CPCC?

Zeiss: Somewhere over 70,000. Here’s how that’s broken up: Of those 70,000, 20 percent are in English as a second language, adult literacy or the adult high school – GED; 40 percent are in college credit classes. They want to get a technical degree to go to work or a transfer degree to go the university; another 40 percent are in corporate continuing education. They don’t care about college credit. They may have PhDs already. They want the latest skill qualification to keep their job or to get a new job.

Q. And does that include your customized training programs?

Zeiss: Yes. We’re already working on a training program for MetLife. People just don’t think about that part of the college. That part is to shore up business, to keep the jobs here ... We’re seen as a national leader in the workforce part. And actually, it’s all workforce. If we can’t get the young person to get a GED , we can hardly get them to anything else.

We’re very concerned that there are good jobs today and tomorrow so our students can find those good jobs. That’s why we’re so involved in economic development. We’re constantly working with business on our curriculum.

Q. How important is the training you do for companies who come here?

Zeiss: One of the big incentives for new companies and expanding businesses to locate here is the free training through the community colleges (provided through the state of North Carolina). It’s all customized to that company.

Q. What would you tell the state legislature that you need?

Zeiss: With the legislature, what I’m telling them, as a matter of fact what I told them last week, “don’t kill the goose that’s laying the golden egg.” We’re putting people in jobs. We understand that if you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money. But if you do have to cut us, give us the flexibility – college by college – to cut ourselves. We’ve always had that up until this year. Frankly, the governor’s budget got very prescriptive.

We’re funding a year in arrears (by the state) – some years ago we got the legislature to give us some help on that. We said level off the peaks and the valleys and give us a three-year rolling average, and they have. The governor’s budget moves that from three years to two years. That affects us a million dollars a year if we look at our trends. It affects a lot of community colleges. So we’d say don’t be so intrusive. Just tell us the cuts and let us do it.

The second message we’re giving to the legislature involves our students. We have a very loose articulation agreement from 1995 which says that our students who transfer to university should get course by course transfer credit. It’s not happening. In some cases, universities will say, oh we’ll accept your credits, but they accept them as electives – not as credit in the class so students have to take the class over. Think about that. So the student has to take Biology 101 over. Number 1, they don’t need it, they’ve already passed it. Number 2, they’re paying tuition twice. Number 3, the taxpayers are paying tuition twice. So there’s a need to tighten up that articulation agreement for the 30 general education credits. We’re very hopeful we’ll see some movement on that because that’s a big issue.

Q. What do you need from the county?

Zeiss: From the county commissioners, we’re talking space and more space. And then of course the budget too. We’d like to get back to our high mark in 2007. They do fund maintenance, buildings and security. We’d like to get back to where we were because we have to take money from this to fill in the holes for that, which gives us less money for teachers.

And one more thing, we are really focused on student success. For us that means we don’t want to be an open door that becomes a revolving door. We want to keep them until they finish the degree or certificate that they’re working for. The real measure of success for 98 percent of our students is they get a job in their field and we’re working very, very hard on that.

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