Officials at the University of the District of Columbia say they might have to scale back its recently launched community college unless it immediately receives $8 million from the D.C. government, putting new pressure on city leaders struggling to close a growing budget shortfall.
The request, which is shining light on a deal struck last year between D.C. Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8) and Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) when he was council chairman, raises questions about whether taxpayers can sustain the university's rapidly expanding mission.
Since UDC launched a community college two years ago, enrollment has soared: More than 2,500 students attend two-year academic and job training programs at multiple locations in the city. But UDC officials say they have been forced to spend more than $18 million to get the community college off the ground, nearly depleting the flagship four-year college in Northwest of its reserve funds.
"We want people to know there is no more money in this piggy bank," said Allen L. Sessoms, president of UDC. "If they want to keep this going, we need money, and it's going to cost money."
Sessoms, who is hoping the council and Gray can fulfill his request in the next couple of weeks, said some programs that city leaders are turning to for help in lowering the city's unemployment could disappear.
But news of the university's request appeared to catch Gray and several council members by surprise - many said they weren't sure how the city can afford to give the university more as they work to close a projected deficit of more than $400 million in the fiscal 2012 budget.
"I am not aware of it," Gray said Tuesday of the request. "Obviously, we are ecstatic the community college has grown so rapidly, but we are also tremendously strapped at this stage."
In addition to more money for the current fiscal year, Sessoms said he will ask the council to boost the city's annual support to the university by $8 million or $10 million to help fund a 50 percent enrollment gain at the community college this year.
Several other council members said lobbyists for the university have said they need the $8 million by March 1 to avert disruptions this school year.
"It's just baffling that we find out halfway through the fiscal year that there were no operating dollars associated with this institution," said council member David A. Catania (I-At Large). "This is not just a funding issue in 2011; it's a funding issue in 2012 and beyond."
As council chairman and on the campaign trail last year during his bid for mayor, Gray became one of the top advocates for a college that has struggled to distinguish itself from other area universities.
With prodding and support from Gray, UDC launched the community college in 2009 to break up its two- and four-year programs. Gray and other city leaders have called the college, headquartered at 801 N. Capitol St. NE, the "missing link" in efforts to lower unemployment and give D.C. high school students another option for higher education.
But university officials said a deal struck by Gray last spring when he was council chairman is adding to the institution's financial stress.
In the final hours before the council voted on the city's 2011 budget, Gray agreed with Barry that the city should transfer the closed Patricia R. Harris Education Center in Ward 8 to UDC for use as a community college.
Despite protests from officials in the administration of Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) that city agencies needed the use of the 358,000-square-foot building, the council approved the transfer as part of the budget.
A year earlier, the council had taken Bertie Backus Middle School - on a valuable site near the Fort Totten Metro station - and handed it to UDC for its community college, again over the objections of Fenty officials.
Sessoms said UDC, which has an annual budget of $148 million, invested $6 million to get the Bertie Backus site open this year for students. But he called the Harris center location, where workforce development programs are housed, a "30 million- to 60 million-dollar problem."
"It has all sorts of issues related to safety and security," said Sessoms, noting that the school is struggling to bring it up to code and in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act. "If we can't get this going in a way that is really good for the people and Ward 8, we will probably have to curtail activities."
In an interview, Barry defended his efforts to give the property to the college, saying that it's helping hundreds of Ward 8 residents gain access to job opportunities.
"It was a fantastic idea," said Barry, who vowed to help the university identify additional resources. "We have 4oo or 500 students that go through there and get excellent training."
Adding to the university's money woes, a $10 million earmark that Gray lobbied Democratic leaders in Congress for in support of the community college fell through after the GOP retook control of the House, Sessoms said.
Joseph L. Askew Jr., chairman of UDC's board of trustees, said the council had long ago made a commitment to boost funding to help pay for operations at the college.
D.C. taxpayers pay about $62 million of the school's annual budget, an amount Sessoms said has not been increased since the now-defunct Control Board slashed the city's support for the university in the mid-1990s.
"I would categorize it as an investment that we are asking the District to make in order to help the council and mayor's vision of making people in the District more employable," said Askew, who, along with Sessoms, is optimistic that Gray and the council can find the money.
But Gray appeared hesitant Tuesday to commit to additional funds. He suggested that the university might want to consider raising tuition, currently $3,000 per year, although university officials estimate that it costs $10,000 per student to keep the college open.
Sessoms said a tuition increase would drive students to Northern Virginia Community College or Montgomery County Community College, both of which charge comparable per-credit-hour tuition rates for in-state students.
"We'll get enough support so it won't be an issue," Sessoms said. "But it's going to cost money to keep the community college growing because it's growing so much. . . . Communities around the nation fund community colleges."