A story about how the public sector can react when the civic sector insists on a place at the table.

In 2008 our local community college, College of DuPage, or COD, got a new president whose priorities were not in sync with those in our member institutions. At the same time the economy worsened and demographics were changing, COD was spending $2 million on new landscaping, while increasing tuition and decreasing programs that served low income residents.

Like most of our issues, this bubbled up from our institutions. Since 50% of the COD budget (that’s $75 million) came from local property taxes, we figured we should have a say in how it was spent. We organized a series of speakers to appear before the Board of Trustees to voice our shared concerns about budget priorities and program cuts.

To say our input was not welcome is an understatement. In a private meeting between the COD President and our leaders, we were told very harshly NOT to continue to appear before the Board during Public Comment, but to bring our concerns directly to him. We politely rejected that request, telling him that we preferred to air our concerns publicly before our elected officials.

When COD proposed to drastically cut back on free English as a second language (ESL) classes because they were “draining the budget”, DuPage United organized not only our institutions, but also ESL students and other community groups as well. Again, during Public Comment before the Board over several months, we promoted the need for more not less ESL classes, saying we viewed the cost as a positive local investment in a common language that benefited not just the students, but the entire community—medical workers, police, firefighters, educators, employers, retailers.

When we continued to meet resistance, and with 66 classes on the chopping block for Spring 2010, we quickly gathered 2600 signatures in two weekends at several of our member institutions and presented them at the next Board meeting to show the depth of community sentiment. The classes were restored.

But our work was not done. Over the next year the administration found other ways to significantly decrease enrollment, mostly through scheduling changes that made it less likely for a class to attract the required number of students. Citing lack of space during remodeling, and after rejecting DuPage United offers of free alternate space, the summer schedule was cut 85% in 2011, and popular intense classes were cut from the fall schedule.

This time we met with the new Dean of Continuing Education, who told us it was a matter of money. He said the program was costing $1 million of local money in addition to state and federal grants.

We have learned how to follow money, and though it took some sleuthing, DuPage United was able to prove that COD was receiving $1 million more in state and federal grants than it was spending on the program. NO local money was being used.

In fact, $1 million of grant money that was generated by ESL enrollment was being diverted to other uses at COD.

The intense classes were restored by spring 2012. Free textbooks were added as well.

Here’s the lesson: If DuPage United had not claimed a seat at the table from 2008 to the present, the free ESL program would be gone. We had to withstand a great deal of tension because this was adversarial. We will probably never have a good relationship with the current president because he sees no use for input from our sector, even calling us “meddling outsiders”. However, we have a solid working relationship with the Dean of Continuing Education who saw his budget increase as a result of our work.

Debbie Fulks 2012