The Rent Risk: CWI Scrambles to Dig Out of its Widening Hole of Leases 

'I would normally joke and say we're looking under all the couch cushions [for money] but, actually, we are.'

CWI asked voters for a $180 million bond in 2016, but the voters said “nay.”

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CWI asked voters for a $180 million bond in 2016, but the voters said “nay.”

According to the most recent long-term strategic assessment from the College of Western Idaho, the state's largest community college is on the brink of a funding deficit.

By many measures, CWI has been a runaway success since opening in 2009, growing from 1,200 students to more than 24,000 in eight years. The community college system has a price tag half as hefty as the state's public universities and CWI and Idaho's two other community colleges—College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls and North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene—account for an estimated $500 million economic impact on the state.

Taken together, CWI's rapid growth, limited state funding and desire to remain affordable are not a recipe for financial success.

"Quite frankly, what keeps us up at night is that very issue of sustainability," CWI President Dr. Berton "Bert" Glandon told the Idaho House Committee on Education in late January. "It's not just the number of students, it's having the quality of programs stay in place that we need to have in place."

The school's most immediate financial concern: more than $2 million in building leases are about to get more expensive.

CWI operates out of 13 properties scattered across the Treasure Valley. Of those, 10 (and a parking lot) are leased and nine leases are up for renewal within the next three years. The lease amounts, bartered at recession levels, will most certainly rise, said Mark Browning, CWI vice president of communications and government relations.

"We did what we had to do to get started, but then demand sprung up. Now we're in a situation that we're catching up with our growth—and there's still more growth to be had," Browning said. "I would normally joke and say we're looking under all the couch cushions [for money] but, actually, we are."

The college anticipated solving its sustainability problem with a $180 million bond for new buildings. The measure was put on the ballot in Ada and Canyon counties in November 2016 but failed with 57.2 percent of voters—short of the 66.66 percent necessary.

Leased buildings are expensive and limit the opportunities the college can offer, Browning said. Meanwhile, health, pharmaceutical and computer programming industries have been begging CWI to train more workers, but with limited training space in the leased buildings, the college can't keep up.

Driving between campuses isn't popular with students, either. Last semester, CWI civil engineering student Jacob Tenorio had to travel between Boise and Nampa daily.

"I'm honestly quite upset about not getting approved for an expansion of CWI," he said. "It will affect future students and could have made it a lot easier for them in terms of travel."

The CWI board has tabled the bond while it evaluates other solutions, Browning said. The school was recently accredited and can now apply for federal grants, and officials are considering the public-private partnerships to help fund new facilities. Even if the bond had passed, however, CWI would still face a shortfall.

Both Browning and the CWI 2018-2022 strategic plan point to the college's low funding compared to other Idaho community colleges. When state appropriations and tax dollars are factored in, CWI receives an average $2,500 less per student than its counterparts. If it was funded at the same level as the next highest community college, CWI would be "very close to solid financial footing," the plan states.

Glandon brought up "balanced funding" in a presentation to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee in January. When CWI opened, there was a three- to five-year plan to help the school achieve equal funding levels. This year, CWI requested $2.9 million to help. The governor recommended just over $221,000.

"We are, I would say, at the point of desperate for balanced funding to help us move into a parallel basis with the other two community colleges," Glandon said at the time. "One of the things that exacerbated this is the fact that I don't think anybody anticipated the kinds of growth that we were going to have. "

CWI will take this funding issue to the Governor's Task Force for Improving Higher Education, a committee charged with recommending policy changes to the governor. Glandon is a member of the group.

Browning said CWI won't spend money it doesn't have—but in order to keep providing opportunities for Treasure Valley students and industries, it needs more support.

"We will find a way to get things done, but we need help," Browning said.

—Sami Edge

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