$20 Million Question
July 25, 2014
A careless email has cost one community college president $20 million, and potentially saved Illinois taxpayers that same amount.
The state of Illinois will not release capital funds previously appropriated to the College of DuPage after an email written by Robert Breuder, the college’s president, fueled charges that the institution was needlessly chasing public dollars.
A May 9 email Breuder wrote to the college’s board, obtained by the government watchdog group For the Good of Illinois through a Freedom of Information Act request, reveals the college president’s plan to pressure the state into releasing $20 million that it had appropriated years before but never spent.
There was one problem. The state had appropriated the money for projects that the 28,000-student college had already completed using its own funds.
To Breuder and his supporters, this story is about the unpredictability of state support and the need for scrappy community colleges to work every possible angle to get enough money to thrive. But to critics who have pounced on the situation, this is a story about a community college that was able to pay for projects itself, yet tried to grab every penny it could from taxpayers -- for the sake of luxury, not necessity.
The Elusive $20 Million
In 2002, George Ryan, then governor of Illinois, announced that he would spend $50 million a year for five years on renovating and replacing temporary buildings on the state’s community college campuses. DuPage was promised $25 million, Breuder said.
The plan lasted for three years instead of five. DuPage’s projects were among the $100 million worth of projects that ended up receiving no money.
"We never saw a dime," Breuder said.
In 2009, the college had another chance. As part of the Illinois Jobs Now! plan, the state appropriated $25 million in capital funds to the college: the same amount promised to DuPage under the 2002 initiative, but never released. This money, too, would go to temporary facilities replacement.
Since 2010, Illinois has appropriated $24 to $25 million in each year’s budget for temporary facilities replacement at DuPage. But the state has allocated only a fraction of that money.
Roughly 18 months ago, Breuder said, the state earmarked $5 million for the demolition of old buildings on the DuPage campus. Some $20 million remained out of the college’s reach. And the initiative the money had been slated for – the demolition and replacement of buildings on the west side of campus – was "soon to be history," Breuder wrote in his email.
"The projects we’re replacing, the buildings we’re replacing, have been changing because we can’t wait forever for the state to say, here’s your money for this particular building," Breuder said in an interview. "[But] if you build … you’re shit out of luck."
A Political Gamble
In May, the college president saw an opening. Governor Pat Quinn, who is up for re-election this November, would be speaking at the college’s commencement.
By publicly thanking the governor for his $20 million commitment to DuPage – money that had been appropriated but not released – perhaps the handout for which DuPage had been waiting for more than a decade would finally materialize, Breuder reasoned.
"When I introduce Governor Quinn at commencement, I want to help our cause (getting the $20 million released sooner rather than later) by thanking him for his commitment in front of 3,500 people," Breuder wrote in his email to the trustees. "There are many voters in our District. Please keep November 4 in mind. The limited state dollars for capital projects will go somewhere in this heightened political season. Why not College of DuPage?"
But Breuder would have to identify a new project that the money would support. DuPage’s board had talked about building a $30 million teaching and learning center. Instead of a $30 million center, Breuder thought, why not a $50 million center?
"We have been working with the Governor’s Office (seemingly forever) to secure our $20 million," Breuder wrote in the email. "My idea: a Teaching and Learning Center. Several board members want to weigh in on the need for such a facility. I have no problem with that; however, not being able to say how we would use the state’s money (perhaps no real need) could lessen our chances to break the money loose at this time (the political moon is rising)."
For the college to use the $20 million in this way – to fund a project the money wasn’t appropriated for – the Illinois legislature would likely have to change the appropriation language in the next year’s state budget, said Ellen Andres, chief financial officer of the Illinois Community College Board
DuPage, Illinois’s largest community college, genuinely needs additional classroom space, college officials said. But it didn’t hurt that "a building that focuses on teaching and learning is politically attractive," as Breuder added in his message.
The college president said he cleared his remarks with the governor’s office before the commencement ceremony. But he didn’t get a chance to speak. Quinn left the event before Breuder could take the microphone.
And it seemed like that was it – DuPage might get the $20 million, or it might not, just like every year since 2010.
Then, in late June, Breuder’s all-too-candid email was made public, and a college president who had developed a reputation for being abrasive but efficient found himself embattled.
A ‘Memo of Frustration’
After the watchdog group For the Good of Illinois published Breuder’s email at the end of June, The Chicago Tribune ran a biting editorial that accused the college president of attempting "a seedy little money grab." And the governor’s office released a statement calling the news regarding DuPage "extremely alarming."
"To date, $5 million has been obligated toward the demolition of structures on the campus," a spokesman for Gov. Quinn said in the statement. "No additional funding has been committed or approved by the state, and all future capital dollars have been suspended."
In other words, DuPage is not getting its $20 million, at least not this year. Whether the legislature will continue to appropriate – or allocate – the $20 million in subsequent years remains to be seen.
Adam Andrzejewski, founder of For the Good of Illinois, filed the FOIA request. He said Breuder’s attempt to procure state funds by delivering political support for Quinn was "highly unethical, if not illegal."
What’s more, Andrzejewski said, DuPage "never needed the dollars."
"There are many ‘state promises’ that should never be fulfilled as Illinois is broke with billions in bills owed to vendors and retirees," he said.
DuPage, meanwhile, has more than $180 million in savings, Breuder said.
Since Breuder arrived at DuPage in 2009, the college has undergone the largest construction project in its 44-year history. All its old buildings are gone. "Every building is either new or completely refurbished from the inside out," Breuder said. The final cost of the six-year renovation effort will be close to $600 million.
For Andrzejewski, the furor at DuPage is merely one manifestation of a corrupt streak in Illinois politics.
"In Illinois, if anything happens for the good of the people, it’s entirely by accident," he said. "All decisions are based on power and politics."
Read full report at Inside Higher Ed: