“They can’t afford it,” said Fatigato, 20, who grew up a few miles north of the Glen Ellyn campus. “I pay for school myself so I don’t currently have any money and I’m running low on funds for school.”
Fatigato, a television production major, is struggling to become the first member of her family to earn a college degree. So it bothers her, she said, to see how the college is spending its money.
“The PE building and the MAC building are very nice,” she said, referring to renovations of the college’s Physical Education Center and McAninch Arts Center. “But I feel like they overdid it in a lot of ways. Some of the statues, we don’t need. And the fountain — it’s got a giant glass mural-type thing.”
Then Fatigato told me about a fear she shares with many students. It’s a fear that is getting drowned out by a public furor over a $760,000 severance package for the school’s president.
“They’re going to raise tuition and then people like me who pay for school by myself will not be able to afford it,” she said.
Big tuition hikes may seem far-fetched for a community college that brags about operating reserves exceeding $177 million last year. But the backlash against the College of DuPage’s spending habits is very real. The critics once consisted mostly of faculty union leaders and local Tea Party activists. Now their ranks have spread to business leaders, newspaper editorial boards and west-suburban state lawmakers from both parties.
They’re upset about the severance package, which will send off President Robert Breuder three years before his contract would have been up. They’re mad about his satellite phones and booze tab. They wonder whether he built the college’s French restaurant and boutique hotel to provide perks to administrators instead of training opportunities for culinary and hospitality students.
To find out how the uproar could affect the school’s future, I asked to speak with Breuder, his spokesman and the chairwoman of the board of trustees. They all declined. At a board meeting last week, another trustee insisted that the severance package was the best deal the school could get.
When the dust settles — when those administrators and trustees are gone — there could still be a steep price for today’s turmoil. It’s a price that would be paid largely by the college’s 28,000 students and by working-class families, such as Fatigato’s, who are counting on the College of DuPage for a leg up.
That’s if the public kept the impression that their taxes bankroll golden parachutes and lavish amenities instead of instructional programs. See, it’s the public that is paying most College of DuPage expenses. Aside from tuition and student fees ($66 million in fiscal 2014), the largest sources of operating revenue are real-estate taxes ($108 million) and state appropriations ($55 million). Both of those spigots can open and close in response to political pressures, including taxpayer revolts like the one brewing in DuPage County.
Then there are the bond sales that finance the college’s major construction projects. The authority for those sales requires approval from local voters — mainly the same taxpayers. The most recent College of DuPage bond referendum, a 2010 measure, passed by a slim margin.
“The next time that the college needs to go out and ask for money for something legitimate, [voters] will remember the expensive French restaurant,” warned David Goldberg, a political science professor at the college. “They will remember the three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar payout that the president has received. And they will rightfully be concerned about where their tax dollars are going to go.”
And if they decide to put fewer of those dollars into the College of DuPage, Goldberg said, it could eventually lead to program cuts and tuition hikes. The primary victims, in other words, will be students.
To hear an extended version of this story, including more voices, click on the audio player above. Chip Mitchell is WBEZ’s West Side bureau reporter. Follow him on Twitter @ChipMitchell1 and @WBEZoutloud, and connect with him through Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn.