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College Of DuPage Fallout Could Go Beyond The Administration

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(Photo for College of DuPage by James C. Svehla)
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The College of DuPage is getting heat about its spending lately.  The focus since last week has been a 760-thousand-dollar 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 week to approve a contract buyout for President Robert Breuder, more than 400 people showed up.

And they didn’t come to cheer.

SECRETARY: Chairman Birt.

BIRT: Yes. The motion passes.

AUDIENCE: Boo!

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 dollars 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, this is no ordinary community college.

It’s the biggest in the state. We’re talking 28,000 students.

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.

EM-CEE: Up next we have Angela. Alright, guys, who’s excited for her performance?

A couple days ago, I visited the campus. It’s in Glen Ellyn.

In one building, some students between classes held an open-mic session.

EM-CEE: Singing.

Around the corner in a cafeteria, I met Rachel Fatigato.

She’s 20. From Itasca. She’s studying television production.

FATIGATO: I pay for school myself so I don’t currently have any money and I’m running low on funds for school.

MITCHELL: Your parents don’t help?

FATIGATO: They can’t afford it.  

So Fatigato says it bothers her to see what the college is spending money on.

FATIGATO: The PE building and the MAC building are very, very nice but I feel like they overdid it in a lot of ways. 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 school 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.

We asked to speak with Breuder, his spokesman and the chairwoman of the board of trustees.

They all declined.

At last week’s board meeting, though, trustee Kim Savage said the school got the best deal it could.

SAVAGE: 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.

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 Representative Peter Breen -- he’s a Republican of Lombard -- he’s proposing a ban on severance deals exceeding a year’s salary and benefits.

BREEN: Now is the perfect time to cut this off before it causes more harm and uses more taxpayer dollars in an improper way.

But some students and faculty worry that the damage is done.

And that it goes far beyond the 760-thousand-dollar severance package.

They’re worried about losing public support...and funding.

The college needs voters, for example, to approve sales of bonds for construction projects.

The last referendum -- it was in 2010 -- it passed by a slim margin.

David Goldberg is a political science professor at the college.

GOLDBERG: 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. 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.

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