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‘It’s been one of the most difficult years’

Central Lakes College officials on Thursday discussed how recent funding reductions have affected college programs with Sen. Michelle Fishbach, R-Paynesville, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Fishbach and Sen. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd, met with administrators, faculty and students and toured the Brainerd campus in the wake of an approximate $1 million decline in state appropriations for the school between fiscal year 2011 to fiscal year 2012.

Kari Christiansen, vice president of administrative services, told the lawmakers the difference was made up through about $1 million in personnel cost cuts, increased class size, not replacing some of the 13 staff members who retired and by cutting $400,000 from the operating budget.

“To me it’s been one of the most difficult years,” she said.

The cuts have come at a time when the headcount for 2011 is 6,244, with most of the students coming from a seven-county area that includes Crow Wing, Mille Lacs, Aitkin, Cass, Morrison, Todd and Wadena counties. 

CLC President Larry Lundblad said Minnesota has the highest counselor to student ratio in the state. The school’s students, he said, often drive relatively 

long distances to school since there’s no college housing and higher gas prices have coupled with high tuition to put students in a bind.

“These counties up here are some of the poorest in the state,” Lundblad said.

Patrick Spradlin,  head of the CLC theatre department, said the number of students auditioning for school plays has gone down because so many of them must work to stay in school.

“We keep raising tuition ... These are students with families, single parents,” he said.

Martha Kuehn, a psychology instructor at the college said her class numbers have gone from about 40 to about 50 in recent years.

CLC President Larry Lundblad said the school serves about 1,700  high school students who are taking college classes through CLC. For some of the smaller schools, he said, “We’re kind of becoming senior year.”

Lundblad and Suresh Tiwari, vice president of academic and student affairs, also detailed the school’s participation with area high schools, the Brainerd Lakes Chamber and area businesses in the Bridges program. The program teaches students about high-paying, high-demand jobs in the area. Each year, Bridges also hosts a career exploration day. Last  year about 2,400 students from 22 high schools attended the career exploration day.

“The place is hopping,” said of the outreach event.

Gazelka said the concept behind bridges is to expose young people to ideas for potential careers before they get to college. 

“It’s a great idea,” he said.

Before going on a tour that included the veterans center, the two theatres and the Jon Hassler Library, college officials also briefed the two senators on the new Center for Lifelong Learning, the Cultural Arts Series and the Business and Industry Center.

Fishbach commended the school for forming partnerships with industry and with the community.

“I think they’re doing great things,” she said.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, the Senate DFL lead on the Higher Education Committee, issued a statement Wednesday stating she was shocked at the audacity of Republican senators would talk about the long term health and effectiveness of Minnesota’s higher education system after GOP lawmakers passed what she termed the largest funding cut to colleges and universities in Minnesota history. She said MnSCU alone saw its state funding cut by $170 million, a nearly 14 percent cut in funding.

Fishbach said the reduction amount depends upon how one figures it and she estimated the actual amount was closer to 10.6 percent. Asked if the cuts were the largest in state history she said it may have been.

The committee chair said the state was faced with a $5 billion deficit and was not able to continue spending at the previous levels. Efforts were made to concentrate the cuts in the central office and keep them away from students.

“Nobody wants to cut,” she said. 

MIKE O’ROURKE may be reached at or 855-5860.