August 1, 2019 10:47:04 AM
Since 2009, the East Mississippi Community College football team has won seven state and five national championships, a level of success never before seen on its level of football. That success brought national attention to the school through the Netflix documentary, "Last Chance U," whose first two seasons told the story of EMCC's unorthodox ascendancy to the top of community college football. We would like to say you can't buy that kind of publicity. Given what we are learning now, however, that's not entirely accurate.
Those championships and national exposure have been a source of tremendous pride for the school.
But in that achievement, it is becoming obvious that somewhere along this remarkable journey, one important thing has been lost: A sense of proportion.
The mission of EMCC is preparing students for the workplace or a four-year degree. Anything that impedes, distracts or compromises that mission is a misplaced priority. And, yes, that includes athletics, even a football team as dominant as EMCC's.
Over the past 10 years, EMCC's fund balance has fallen from a high of $11 million to roughly $1 million as classes begin this fall. Those numbers would have been much worse if the school hadn't drawn millions from one of its auxiliary funds.
While that time-frame parallels the meteoric rise of the EMCC football team, it's difficult to know to what degree the cost of that football success is responsible for the decline in funds.
What is known is EMCC athletics generated almost $900,000 in revenue during the 2018 season, but spent almost $2.1 million. That net loss of $1.2 million more than covers EMCC's budget deficit for the year.
There are two things that should be noted here. First, athletics programs at community colleges rarely are profitable. Second, community colleges justify the cost of athletics because they enhance student experience, maintain relationships with alumni and help establish and promote the school's brand.
But when athletics amasses a $1.2 million deficit in a single season or when annual salaries and benefits for the school's rodeo team -- Who knew EMCC had a rodeo team? -- balloons from $9,000 to $90,000 over a 10-year period, it is clear the school's priorities are desperately out of balance.
Athletics isn't the only area that's losing significant money. Lion Hills Center -- the old Columbus Country Club -- has been running losses of about half a million dollars a year since the school purchased it in 2012.
A quick glance at EMCC's budget for this coming school year shows things are not expected to improve. Steep enrollment losses over the past decade are expected to continue, which will only further hurt the school's financial outlook. While the school has other reserves it can pull from, this trend of overspending has to stop.
Even more ominous is that EMCC will open its $42 million Communiversity this fall. Five years in the making, the Communiversity is a state-of-the-art manufacturing skills and technology center heralded as the biggest advancement in community college education in recent history. It stands to be a showpiece for our community and a crucial workforce training center to feed area industry. Proper operation of the Communiversity is crucial.
For at least 10 years school administration -- which includes three presidents (current president Scott Alsobrooks arrived in January) -- and the EMCC board of trustees have watched its reserves decline year after year but have yet to implement changes needed to get its financial house in order.
Either leadership was inexplicably unaware of the growing funding crisis or it lacked the will to make difficult, but necessary, changes.
It's time -- past time, in fact -- for EMCC to take a cold, sober look at how it funds its programs and restore a long-needed sense of proportion to its operations.
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