Blackhawk Technical College looks ahead after referendum defeat

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Nick Crow
Monday, August 18, 2014

JANESVILLE — It's been a roller coaster ride for Blackhawk Technical College.

The Great Recession led to a rise in enrollment. At the same time, expenses for the college began to rise.

When enrollment started to dip, the college was caught with dropping revenues but expenses that continued to rise.

The result? Four years of staff, instruction and support cuts and the school occasionally dipping into reserves, President Tom Eckert said.

Meanwhile, the state changed the funding model for technical colleges, placing more emphasis on state aid and less on property taxes.

Last week brought another twist with voters rejecting the school's request for permission to collect an additional $4 million in property taxes each year indefinitely.

Eckert said they are pressing on.

"The loss at the voting booth will not alter our mission to serve our students, district constituents and area employers with the best programs and quality education we can provide," Eckert said in a written statement after the referendum vote.

The question now is how the college will reach its goals. Eckert said another referendum isn't in the cards, especially after last Tuesday's result.

"Personally I was surprised by the vote," Eckert said. "To suffer a defeat like that was pretty surprising. But it was definitive--60/40 is pretty telling. People clearly didn't have an appetite for the referendum."

Now, the college must trudge ahead attempting to increase enrollment, provide necessary services, educate students and keep costs down.

Eckert said the college plans to grow enrollment by 1,000 students in the next five years.

"We were going to open up more weekend and evening programs, and that has been curtailed," Eckert said. "This referendum was more about opening pathways and opportunities."

Money planned for instruction, grant-writing positions, student services and IT staff now must come from somewhere else, Eckert said.

"We'll certainly explore ways to find other revenue to be able to do what we want to do," Eckert said. "Now, we're going to have to find different ways to do that. I can't be definitive about what that will be and when. It's going to be more of a challenge."

Eckert said the school has been forced to make several budgetary decisions to address fiscal concerns. He doesn't expect any staff reductions because of the failed referendum, but financial vigilance will "not change now that the referendum has been rejected."

"I really don't think we'd do anything differently," Eckert said. "We tried to put our story out there and to be transparent. But we would have to get a strong sense of support to try to go to referendum again."

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