The College of DuPage is getting heat about its spending lately. The focus recently has been a $760,000 severance package for the school president.
That payout has taxpayers wondering how the college is spending their money ... and students wondering if that could lead to program cuts and tuition hikes.
When College of DuPage trustees met last month to approve a contract buyout for President Robert Breuder, more than 400 people showed up. And they didn’t come to cheer.
This wasn’t the first time the college’s financial practices had come under fire. Last spring Breuder was caught plotting to get $20 million from Illinois taxpayers without a plan on how to use it. And his administration has spent lavishly on campus amenities like a French restaurant and boutique hotel.
It’s true that this is no ordinary community college. It’s the biggest in the state, with 28,000 students. The campus is in Glen Ellyn, and it’s surrounded by wealthy suburbs.
Yet, like other community colleges, most students are working class. They’re depending on the school for a leg up.
Rachel Fatigato, a 20-year-old student from Itasca, is studying television production.
“I pay for school myself,” she said, “so I don’t currently have any money, and I’m running low on funds for school.”
She said her parents can’t afford to help, so it bothers her to see what the college is spending money on.
“The PE building and the MAC building are very, very nice but I feel like they overdid it in a lot of ways,” Fatigato said. “Some of the statues that we have we don’t need. And the fountain. I mean it’s got a giant glass mural-type thing.”
Then there’s the restaurant and hotel. They’re part of the college’s culinary and hospitality program.
The college gives Breuder credit for hundreds of millions of dollars in campus improvements. But it’s also paying him all that money to end his contract three years early.
Breuder, his spokesman and the chairwoman of the board of trustees all declined to discuss the situation.
At last week’s board meeting, though, trustee Kim Savage said the school got the best deal it could.
“We have an obligation to uphold the contract, and the right thing to do is a solution that is in the best interests of everyone. It will allow us to move forward and change the direction, and it will end up saving money.”
-- College of DuPage Trustee Kim Savage
But it may not matter.
To many local property taxpayers, the whole thing looks terrible. They’re the ones responsible for the biggest chunk of the college’s funding. And this April, they’ll be voting in elections for the trustees.
The college gets other money from the state. Some Illinois lawmakers this week announced bills aimed at punishing the College of DuPage. State Rep. Peter Breen, R-Lombard, is proposing a ban on severance deals that exceed one year’s salary and benefits.
“Now is the perfect time to cut this off before it causes more harm and uses more taxpayer dollars in an improper way,” Breen said.
But some students and faculty worry that the damage is done. And that it goes far beyond the $760,000 severance package. They’re worried about losing public support ... and funding.
For example, the college needs voters to approve sales of bonds for construction projects. The last referendum in 2010 passed by a slim margin.
“People in the community, the next time that the college needs to go out and ask for money to pay for something legitimate, they will remember the expensive French restaurant,” said 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 says, the school eventually might have to cut programs and jack up tuition.