DCC tuition rises, other issues avoided

Uncomfortable is among the words to describe the atmosphere when representatives of Dutchess Community College (DCC) came before the Dutchess County Legislature in July to ask for acceptance of the college budget. The community college is almost universally praised for its academics and for the advancement opportunities it affords high-school graduates and adults, but in recent months eyebrows have risen.

To be fair, some of the criticism is the result of rising tensions between the college teachers’ union and the administration, due to an expired contract and a breakdown in negotiations. Faculty have been attending Legislative meetings in June and July to air their discontent during public comment. Compensation issues and disparities between full and part-time faculty exist as do larger controversies revolving around the dormitories that opened last August.

Questions have reached the ears of legislators regarding cost over-runs with the dorm’s construction as well as student misbehaviors. In February the college and the county were both named defendants in a notice of claim. While legislators questioned and engaged the college administration during our respective caucus meetings, the college was shielded at the public sessions from questions related to the dorms by legislative leadership.

The prevailing logic is a legalistic half-truth claiming that it is inappropriate for legislators to inquire about dorms since “the college” does not oversee them. The dorms are governed instead by the DCC Association, which is a not-for-profit corporation whose mission it is to supplement, enrich and further the activities and services of the college as operated by the Board of Trustees. Led by the college president, vice-presidents and Board of Trustee members (alongside a handful of students and community members to make it appear independent), the Association was created decades ago to run the for-profit campus entities like the bookstore, cafeteria and day care (and now the dorms) that otherwise are unlawful for the college itself to operate.

I have long claimed that it is a legal fiction to say the Association and college are distinct, and have argued (as I did again this month) that the college is failing to maintain the necessary separation between the Association and college to prevent would-be litigants from “piercing the corporate veil.” Failure to do so exposes both the college and county government for crimes and negligence that might occur in the areas within the purview of the Association.

County government, alongside the state of New York, is a sponsor of the community college, making up 27.8 percent of its budget. As such we approve the college’s budget as it relates to salaries and tuition. We do not vote on the Association’s budget, nor do we appoint its board as we do with the college Board of Trustees. Our influence and oversight over matters concerning the dorms and absorbent bookstore sales is limited, at least according to the college administration and current legislative leadership. This, however, has not stopped a chorus of legislators from asking for more open dialogue and transparency with the DCC Association.

With respect to the college budget, after much discussion the Legislature accepted the $63.6 million 2013-14 college spending plan with a $100 a year tuition hike.

Michael N. Kelsey represents the people of Amenia, Washington, Stanford, Pleasant Valley and Millbrook in the Dutchess County Legislature. Write him at KelseyESQ@yahoo.com.