Difficult days, opportunities ahead for DCC

Guest Opinion By Chad Knudson
Sunday, May 30, 2021
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Buccaneer Country, we have a problem!

As indicated by the headline in the last Ranger-Review, the finances at Dawson Community College are at a critical juncture. The May 27 article accurately reflects the message delivered to the trustees and the current state of affairs.

Our neighbors who have been around awhile may find themselves thinking, “here we go again!” or “what’s new?”

That is a fair sentiment, but I assure you this time is different.

Nine years ago I got involved with DCC out of concern for its path and soon called for the resignation of a former college president on this opinion page. I suggested it was time to “free up his future.” He resigned shortly thereafter.

Four years ago there was an effort in the Montana Legislature to completely defund DCC based on crude and misleading financial formulas. At the time the college was struggling with collapsing enrollments year over year. I took to statewide radio and the capitol to defend DCC.

Without relitigating the troubles of the past, I simply want to acknowledge I know where we have been.

I assure you, this current situation is nothing like those of the past.

At DCC, we are experiencing consistent year-over-year enrollment growth in the face of nearly universal enrollment drops statewide and nationwide. Our athletic teams are competing at the top of their conferences, regions, districts and one even made its first appearance at the national tournament this year. We have great people who have been recruited from far and wide and who all contribute to a quality education to ever more students.

At the same time we are reaching out. Our international venture is providing revenue from students half a world away. Our outreach campus in Lewistown promises the community college experience we take for granted to an eager community in Fergus County.

In testament to the good things happening, our tuition revenue increased 250% in the last four years.

New people, new projects, new ideas and successful programs are the hallmarks of DCC in 2021. In many ways, DCC is at the top of its game. So what’s the problem? Spurred on by the combination of major DCC-specific state budget cuts during the 2017 Legislature and a college already struggling with plummeting enrollment, the administration and trustees were determined to turn things around and prove we could grow significantly in a short time. To do so we needed to swing for the fences. Swing we did.

For the past four budget cycles DCC spent heavily out of reserves. The administration knew they couldn’t grow a college through cuts. The trustees, often tempering administration’s expectations, largely agreed. The historical record shows that the college has been spending down reserves for the past four years to fund an ever-expanding budget meant to grow the college. It worked, but now those funds have been exhausted.

Today DCC’s future is in its own hands. No outside force is threatening us. The challenges and decisions are of our own making. We are growing, we are winning and we have strong roots.

Nevertheless, like any operation that borrows to grow, there are debts to be paid. We have some very difficult days ahead as we recalibrate our budget. We have 80 years experience making things work and I have no doubt we will do so again.

If we get it right, there are better days to come.

Buccaneer Country, we have an opportunity!

Chad Knudson is Chairman of the Dawson Community College Board. He can be reached at chairman@rangerreview.com.