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The cost of Safety

The Public Safety Academy of Northeast Indiana could fall victim to Ivy Tech budget belt-tightening.

When Ivy Tech and the city of Fort Wayne announced an agreement last year for use of the Public Safety Academy, it looked like a perfect solution: Area students would have a convenient, well-equipped building for courses related to public safety, and the city would continue to have space for police and fire departments to use. The deal seemed to put an end to the troubling financial questions that had plagued the building since it opened in 2007.

But now the financial questions have settled on the statewide community college system, with its leadership looking for ways to make up a $68 million budget shortfall. The Public Safety Academy: Ivy Tech South Campus is among about 50 sites at risk of closing.

The partnership agreement has the city leasing the entire 132,000-square-foot, $26 million building to Ivy Tech, with the community college responsible for operating costs. Repayment of a $15 million bond for its construction, arranged at the time the academy was built, flows from the state through Ivy Tech. The lease payments for space used by the police and fire training academies contribute $380,000 a year toward operating costs.

Ivy Tech, however, is now applying a return-on-investment formula to all of its sites not currently supported by bonds backed by student fees, such as the Coliseum Boulevard building and North Campus site.

In an interview after the statewide Ivy Tech Board of Trustees meeting in Fort Wayne this month, Ivy Tech President Tom Snyder said the Public Safety Academy is “a bit of an unusual case” but acknowledged it is among the sites under review.

“We would certainly say from the state perspective – from my perspective – that we’ll have to study it,” he said. “I understand we’ve made this commitment and we need to look at it and say, ‘Does it have a return on investment?’ ”

Snyder said Ivy Tech is a few months away from making a decision on closing sites, which include eight community-based centers in northeast Indiana, and that officials will be “as transparent as possible” in making decisions.

The approach they are taking, however, seems to be heavily weighted on enrollment. Snyder cited a central Indiana program – the Avon campus – as an example of one he expected to be spared from cutting. Located in a former strip shopping center, it was renovated with community support and now serves 3,000 students.

That’s why city officials and area lawmakers should be prepared to make a case for the south campus. With less than a year’s worth of data under the current arrangement, the academy’s performance most likely hasn’t reached full potential. When the agreement was announced, Jerrilee Mosier, Ivy Tech Northeast chancellor, noted that the location would draw students from the city’s south side and from Wells, Adams and Huntington counties.

It undoubtedly will, but it often takes time for a school’s value to become known. About 1,100 students took classes at the academy in each of the fall and spring semesters.

Investments already made in the academy, including $6.5 million in local income taxes, represent the sort of community support Snyder cites as lacking in Ivy Tech’s funding foundation. The academy offers college prep courses, but also public safety, homeland security and criminal justice courses that serve not only students, but the community overall in meeting workforce needs. More than 100 course sections are scheduled there next fall.

Linda Buskirk, president of the Fort Wayne-based Accountable Solutions and an Ivy Tech trustee, said she’s confident the formula and related lease issues will justify maintaining the Public Safety Academy site, which Ivy Tech will control outright after the bond is repaid in 2021.

“It would be very hard for me to believe that the Public Safety Academy is going to be gone,” she said. “But the important thing for me is that no matter where an Ivy Tech student goes, they receive a quality education. If having a plethora of sites takes away from our ability to make sure they get a degree that is going to be useful to them for the rest of their life, that’s what I think is the most important thing.”