Funding cuts to NJ colleges questioned

Lawmakers and college presidents on Wednesday questioned the Christie administration on the thinking behind $38 million in funding cuts to public colleges and universities for fiscal 2016.

Cuts in direct operating funding would range from as little as 0.52 percent at Rutgers-Camden to as high as 14.28 percent at Thomas Edison State College.

Administration officials have touted flat operating support to the schools, but that includes increases to “fringe benefits” — e.g. health care — to employees.

At an Assembly budget hearing Wednesday, committee chairman Gary S. Schaer (D., Passaic) asked Secretary of Higher Education Rochelle Hendricks how the cuts were distributed.

She said the reductions were based on projected pension costs:

“There were reviews of the pension costs — historical reviews at the institutions — and an extrapolation to what the pension costs would be in the coming fiscal year, and an allocation of a share of those costs going to the institutions to absorb.”

Schaer was unhappy with that answer.

“And it was not thought that some of the percentage basis was so, forgive me, out-of-whack, one institution to another?” Schaer asked.

“I mean, we’re all familiar with the tremendous work that Dr. [George A.] Pruitt does with Thomas Edison, for example — 14.28 percent decline. I’d rather not speak about those who had significantly less, but it seems that’s just disproportionately high,” he said.

R. Barbara Gitenstein, president of The College of New Jersey, then jumped in to question the state’s projections, which, she said, had been inaccurate in the past.

“This extrapolation, if it’s based on history, doesn’t fit with our audited numbers, and I think this is true of some of our colleagues,” she said.

TCNJ would see a cut of 8.29 percent in direct operating aid, a reduction of $2,429,000.

“My point is, if you look at what was projected … there’s a $5 million differential that we did not spend,” Gitenstein said.

So while the state’s calculations are transparent, Gitenstein said, “we also have questions about the adequacy of the methodology.”

She received no answer from Hendricks — Schaer joked about how “’adequacy’ is an extraordinarily kind word”, to which Gitenstein said she was being diplomatic — and the hearing soon moved to the next topic without further response from the secretary.