Our Views: Vote 'yes' to help Blackhawk Technical College boost economy

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Saturday, August 9, 2014

A strong technical college is vital to a community in need of economic development.

That's why the Gazette Editorial Board supports a “yes” vote in Tuesday's Blackhawk Technical College referendum. Our board does so reluctantly, however, and urges voters to fully weigh the issues.

Approving Tuesday's question would let Blackhawk raise its operational budget $4 million a year at a time of decreasing enrollment. Student numbers peaked in 2009-10 after the automotive industry left Janesville and jobless workers sought new skills. Enrollment has declined steadily since.

President Tom Eckert explains that the extra money would help Blackhawk expand its current offerings, including weekend and evening courses. Blackhawk could add new programs such as agriculture, health information and paramedic training. It also would strengthen career pathways from high schools.

Blackhawk is about to open its new Advanced Manufacturing Training Center in Milton. It makes no sense to build it using dollars donated by local companies and then lack the money to fill it with instructors.

With more opportunities for more residents of Rock and Green counties, Eckert projects enrollment would rise by 1,000 within five years. Nearly 90 percent of students learn part time, meaning Blackhawk caters to many workers who want to add skills. More weekend and evening classes would serve their needs.

It hasn't helped enrollment that Blackhawk has cut $4.9 million since 2010-2011 because the state slashed aid 30 percent, or about $1.5 million. The school couldn't raise tuition because the Wisconsin Technical College System Board sets fees statewide. It also is severely limited in how much it can raise property taxes without a referendum.

Blackhawk reduced staff, left vacancies unfilled, closed programs and reduced other expenses. Operational costs per full-time equivalent student are lowest among the state's small technical colleges.

Eckert points out that even if the referendum passes, property taxes going to Blackhawk next year will decline because of extra state aid budgeted for technical colleges. The owner of a $100,000 home would pay $51 less. If the referendum fails, you would pay $76 less. Voters should realize, however, that taxes for technical colleges could rise in later years if lawmakers pull back on state support.

Blackhawk does a good job with available money. Its graduation rate is better than 97 percent of two-year colleges nationwide. Ninety-four percent of graduates get jobs within six months. Employer satisfaction stands at 96 percent. Ninety-two percent of graduates stay and work in Wisconsin, most in Blackhawk's district.

The biggest concern is that the $4 million request isn't a one-year deal. It has no sunset. Blackhawk could tap the extra $4 million every year forever. Still, Eckert stresses that it's a one-time addition to the tax base. In other words, it doesn't double to $8 million in year two and leap to $12 million in year three.

The taxing authority also doesn't mean that the college must tax that much more each year. Eckert says he cut the tax rate nine straight years while at Nicolet's tech school. On the other hand, Eckert won't lead Blackhawk forever.

If the referendum passes, we'd ask Blackhawk to produce an annual report that justifies its use of the money. The report should detail trends in full-time and part-time students, the full-time equivalent count, the student placement rate, numbers of full- and part-time staffers and numbers of course sections offered. It also should explain how the additional money made a difference for the school and its students.

Here's the key point for voters who can't get past the lack of a sunset on this proposed tax increase: Had Blackhawk's spending matched that of Wisconsin's other small technical colleges, its budget would have been about $4 million more when the state imposed limits. In other words, Blackhawk already would be taxing and using that much more, providing more opportunities for more students and helping local businesses thrive.

On Tuesday, vote “yes” so Blackhawk keeps serving as an engine for local economic growth.

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