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Weary of Level Funding, Community Colleges Ask for More

Community colleges across the state are asking lawmakers for a budget bump.

Students, teachers and trustees packed the state Capitol rotunda Tuesday to ask for a break from the state’s years-long streak of mostly flat-funding its 14 community colleges.

“The dwindling support over the past years from both local sponsors and the state is having a toll on our institutions and risking the student experience,” said Alex Johnson, president of the Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges.

Johnson said that without more state dollars in the next budget, many schools would be forced to decide between eliminating programs or hiking student tuition – or both.

Tables lining the inside of the dome featured the wares of music departments and culinary courses. A tabletop claimed by the Westmoreland County Community College was covered with the fruits of a 3-D printer’s labor, which turned spools of plastic into things like gears, wrenches and imitation bones used in classes for emergency responders.

“The machine that we built a lot of these on is $15,000, and there’s some a lot more,” said Frank Kordalski, director of WCCC’s technology programs. “We would have never been able to do it without grant funding.”

He said his department relies heavily on grants and partnerships with local businesses to support courses that prepare students for careers in manufacturing, robotics and nanotechnology.

The school is expanding into a larger facility next fall for its technology division. Kordalski boasted about the school’s new oil and gas program.

“We’re working with the industry," said Kordalski. "We’re making prototypes for them right now. They’re coming to us, asking us for help, and we just need to do more.”

But where the commission president had been foreboding, Kordalski was less severe. He said he doubted a lack of state funding would necessitate shutting down any part of the technology programs, and he said he didn’t know of any time the department had to turn students away due to lack of resources.

But Sean O’Donnell, a technology student at Westmoreland, still put up a vigorous defense for the commission’s plea for more funding. He stood behind the whirring 3-D printer on display and gestured to the spread of items another one like it had created.

“Everything you see here has been beg, borrowing and stealing," O’Donnell said. “I printed these parts using the school printer to make this machine. However, now we’ve run out of money for the material so now this machine is not being used at all.”

The Pennsylvania Commission for Community Colleges wants to see an additional $14 million in the budget under negotiation – a roughly 5 percent increase in the money slated for community colleges in the governor’s budget proposal.