June 17, 2017 6:11:34 PM
Thomas Huebner has faced a lot of challenges as a college administrator.
But Huebner realized things were a lot worse than anticipated when he and the other community college presidents in the state of Mississippi received the final budget numbers for the upcoming year.
After further discussion, Huebner decided cuts across the board had to be made at East Mississippi Community College in Scooba following a decrease in funding from the state that will force the school to make up for a 11- to 12-percent shortfall from the previous year. As a result, EMCC has decided to cut its men's golf program and to delay plans to re-start a women's soccer program.
"We had deliberate and intense discussions about every program we cut," Huebner said Friday. "We didn't walk into the discussion looking to cut anything, but it became clear as we looked at our revenue projections we would have to make very tough decisions. All of the decisions impacted people who love EMCC. We had to do what we had to get where we needed to be."
While EMCC will cut two sports, Itawamba Community College Athletic Director Carrie Ball-Williamson said all of the 10 sports at the two-year school in Fulton would survive. She said cuts were made to all of the sports, as to other programs and services at the school.
Earlier this week, The Associated Press reported Mississippi community colleges would eliminate nearly 250 jobs for the upcoming year to close budget gaps. It also reported five schools planned to drop at least one intercollegiate sport.
The AP reported the moves even as the state's 15 community colleges increased tuition by an average of 13 percent, mostly due to the decrease in state funding. Average tuition and fees will rise to $3,104 annually, up from $2,748 this year.
According to The AP, colleges started the current budget year with $265 million in state funding but will start next year with $237 million.
Jobs, programs cut
Community College Board Executive Director Andrea Mayfield said Tuesday in a statement that 81 people will be laid off, while 122 jobs will be eliminated after employees leave or retire. Colleges plan to cut 35 student jobs, a way many students earn money for school, and will eliminate three vacant positions.
"With each college having different needs, and facing different financial situations, the impact of budget cuts to colleges extends far beyond the tuition increase," Mayfield said.
In addition to EMCC losing men's golf and women's soccer, The AP reported Copiah-Lincoln C.C. would stop sponsoring men's and women's soccer, Holmes C.C. would drop men's and women's tennis, Northeast Mississippi C.C. would end men's golf and men's and women's tennis, and Northwest Mississippi C.C. will stop sponsoring men's golf and men's and women's tennis.
Huebner said EMCC waited as long as it could to try to find a solution to the budget shortfall. Unfortunately, he said athletics had to be a part of the cuts.
"Every single one of our athletic programs took a budget cut commensurate with all other parts of the institution," Huebner said. "Even after that we realized we were not where we needed to be with our budget goals, so we began reviewing the options that could help the bottom line on balance and have less of an impact. We made tough decisions regarding academic, personnel, instructional, and non-instructional areas."
Huebner said EMCC will honor all of the scholarships to the student-athletes affected. He said Benji Williams, who served as EMCC's men's golf coach, would remain at Lion Hills as the golf professional at the facility. He also thanked Leon Powell, who the school hired in March to lead the women's soccer program, for the work he did.
EMCC Athletic Director Randall Bradberry said he thinks all of the school's coaches understand the budget cuts affect the state and that changes had to be made. He said all of EMCC's coaches were "very agreeable" to what they needed to do to adjust their budgets to make everything work. He said he couldn't measure the severity of the budget cuts and their impact on the school's athletic program.
"None of us want to make changes, but we understand we have to," Bradberry said. "We have a good coaching staff in all our sports. I think they will make the adjustments and operate within the constraints they have to deal with."
Ball-Williamson didn't know how big the budget cut was at ICC, but she said the athletic department has been "cutting back" the last three to four years. She also declined to compare the latest cuts to others the schools has dealt with in previous years.
ICC sponsors football, men's golf, baseball, softball, men's and women's basketball, men's and women's soccer, and men's and women's tennis.
"We plan on operating at the same level with the same money," Ball-Williamson said. "To do that, we looked at everything, and we looked at our needs as opposed to our wants. We are still going to get what we need, but we have to be careful in our budget."
Ball-Williamson said the school hasn't talked with its student-athletes about the cuts and how they will affect the sports. She said all of the coaches know they will have to "tighten our belts" and do the best with the remaining resources.
Effects of losing program
Trent Humber never expected to hear the news EMCC was cutting its men's golf program.
After all, EMCC purchased Columbus Country Club in 2012 and re-named it Lion Hills. Humber figured the presence of strong high school golf programs like Caledonia High School, which is where he went to school, Heritage Academy, New Hope High, and Oak Hill Academy in the Golden Triangle would help support the school.
But EMCC's decision leaves ICC as the only remaining golf option in the immediate area.
"It is going to take a lot of the local talent away," said Humber, who played at EMCC in 2014-15. "They're not going to be able to stay close to home."
In fact, Dylan Darling and Parker Humber, two members of Caledonia High's state championship boys golf program, signed scholarships to play golf at ICC. Caleb Comer, another member of the team, will play football at ICC.
Trent Humber said cutting a program and then trying to bring it back would make things "a lot harder" for EMCC because it would have to start over.
Caledonia High coach Bradley Tate said it was "very disappointing" to learn EMCC was cutting men's golf because his school was just one of many to send talented student-athletes there.
"It was a shock to me they were defunding the program," Tate said.
Programs remain at Lion Hills
Huebner said the school's turf management and culinary arts programs at Lion Hills would continue.
"Lion Hills is an asset to the community," Huebner said. "We are so pleased we are what I call one of the hubs of Columbus -- the hubs of activity where a lot of good things happen. We have outstanding people at Lion Hills. Our instructional programs are growing. They are solid. We anticipate they will continue to grow. We have worked hard as we have made these change to make sure we don't diminish opportunities for students, so it is important we put the student front and center when we have to make changes, so the experience the student has at EMCC is positive and helps them achieve the goals they want to achieve."
Huebner said it is possible the school could bring the sports back if state revenues increase and legislators increase the funding to the schools. He said EMCC has "incredibly supportive" legislators in its service area that wish things would have been different, but he knows they had to make a hard choice, just like he and his peers had to do.
Huebner declined to comment on whether the men's golf or the women's soccer program could acquire sponsorships or secure donations to help fund their programs.
"It has not been the easiest thing I have had to do as a college administrator, but I can't stick my head in the sand and pretend like everything is OK," Huebner said. "We have to roll up our shirt sleeves and get in there and make good decisions. Every conversation we have we have to think about how that decision will impact our students, and we work hard to minimize that impact."
Follow sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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