Hugh Reynolds: Community college brain drain

Hugh Reynolds.

I’m not referring hereto the handful of public officials who retire every year, but specifically to Ulster residents who choose to attend community colleges outside the county.

We’re all for choice, but in these cases county taxpayers pay a hefty penalty for every student who goes abroad. The sense of the original state legislation that established community colleges in almost every county was that students should be encouraged to attend schools in their home counties.

According to County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach, the annual tab for these student travelers exceeds $2.8 million, with almost a third going to Dutchess. By comparison,Ulster took in only $80,480 from out-of-county students in 2011. The good news, say college officials, is that around 75 percent of those students go to UCCC.


In the case of outbound students, there are three problems: geography, which hasn’t changed much; course selection, which can be expensive and risky if students don’t immediately flock to the new offerings; and student housing.

Having been a public official by way of Ellenville for the better part of 20 years, Auerbach has to know that UCCC has been attempting to deal with these issues for a long time. At one point, college trustees seriously considered establishing a campus in the Highland-Marlborough area to capture students headed for Dutchess Community College, about 10 minutes from the Mid-Hudson Bridge. Even though two southern Ulster County legislators, Dan Alfonso and Rich Gerentine, were heavy hitters in the legislature at the time, nothing came of the effort. In defense of the duo, building a college anywhere would be a major, major financial commitment with no guarantees as to outcome.

Some students go to other schools for courses they can’t take locally.New York City’s SUNY Fashion Institute of Technology is just one example. Undoubtedly, UCCC trustees have studied these issues and concluded establishing new core curriculum isn’t cost-effective.

Building new dorms at UCCC’s Stone Ridge campus has been one of those works in progress without much progress. While Ulster was dithering, Dutchess double-downed by building several hundred units of spanking new student housing at its Town of Poughkeepsie campus. But there has been some positive news of late on the Ulster front. Plans are being finalized for a connection to the High Falls water system to serve future needs, including the existing campus. To paraphrase Billy Joel, all they need now is looks and a whole lot of money.

So what are we to make of Auerbach’s report, which documents in greater detail something we already pretty much knew about? How about timing?

Auerbach is currently locked in a death struggle with the county executive over the transfer of his department’s auditing responsibilities to the commissioner of finance. That Auerbach happens to be right on the facts and on philosophy — a cornerstone of the county charter is the requirement for an independent auditor, not one controlled by the executive who would then be in effect auditing himself. Auerbach is however but a pimple on the sensitive butt of the all-powerful executive who does not take prisoners.

Entreaties to legislators, some of whom wouldn’t know a community college from a communicable disease, have so far fallen on something less than eager ears, though Auerbach says he has sponsors to carry his water in the legislature. He’ll need about 16 to override an executive veto, something that hasn’t even been even attempted in the four years of executive government. The plain political truth is that the executive can and will do more to secure legislative votes than the comptroller can.

The report on wandering college students therefore is meant to draw positive public attention to a department that, I suspect, is being bad-mouthed by the headmaster behind the scenes.

Pay days

How much is a town supervisor worth in salary? I guess it depends on the town. Saugerties, with a population of 19,000, should be worth more than Denning, with 551 souls. And it depends on the individual. If a town has a crackerjack supervisor who’s doing lots of positive things without breaking the bank, well, then, like in the private sector, some sort of additional remuneration should be forthcoming.

But shouldn’t they serve more than one year — as in two cases below — before rattling the tin cup?

In New Paltz, born-again Town Supervisor Susan Zimet (she served three terms in the ’90s) secured one of the larger raises in recent memory — from about the $49,000 she ran on last year to over $60,000 next year, but less than the $20,000 extra she asked for initially.

Zimet, admittedly a hard worker, claimed she worked for the “minimum wage” which our ace reporter Mike Townshend figured to be 160 hours a week. Even County Executive Mike Hein, in the early days of his administration, never claimed to have worked more than 80.

The town board agreed with the supervisor that the extra hours she had put in cleaning up the financial mess left by predecessor Toni Hokanson was worth a substantial bonus, though one wonders where the town board was while their former supervisor was shifting funds from one off-line account to another in order to hold taxes down.