Each year, UNM-Taos Executive Director Dr. Kate O’Neill spends the better part of January in the Roundhouse during the legislative session in Santa Fe, and I asked her to fill me in on some of this session’s highlights and comment on what to expect in the coming year.

She felt that it went better this year than any year since 2008, when the recession settled in and public and higher education were really taking a hit. “We’re within about $40,000 of where we were last year in terms of I and G appropriations,” O’Neill said. Those are the Institutional and General funds used to run the Department of Instruction, the physical plant and generally keep the doors of the branch community college open.
What is new is that the long awaited and hotly debated revisions to the funding formula are starting to kick in. We now receive only 96 percent of our base funding, with four percent withheld and redistributed to the colleges throughout the state based on four performance measures: the number of at-risk students they serve, graduation rates, emphasis on STEM (science, technology engineering and math) courses, and workforce development.

“We are strong in all four areas,” O’Neill said, “and they are well suited to our mission. We serve a first-generation, low-income, ethnically diverse population and 54 percent of our students either receive Pell grants or are Pell-eligible.

“We’ve been holding steady with graduation rates and now have mandatory advising, and first-time students are required to take University 101, a course designed to teach people how to be students. They learn time management skills, study skills, how to navigate financial aid, and much more.

“We are proud to have an open enrollment campus, and we take whoever comes through the door and we meet them where they are and get them where they need to go," O'Neill said. "That’s our mission. We are offering more math and science classes than ever before. Students have let us know that they recognize that those are the skill areas that they need in the 21st century to be competitive in the workforce of tomorrow. Finally, in the workforce development area, we have everything from commercial drivers license training to the culinary arts and green technology.   

“Most folks probably don’t know that we actually pay main campus to be a branch of the University of New Mexico,” she added. “Even though we have the UNM logo by our name, we do not benefit from the funding stream that main campus has. We have some local mill levy money, some gross receipts taxes, but by virtue of the Community College Act we cannot commingle funds.Nevertheless, we have a pretty incredible team here, starting with our faculty, staff and students. They all work hard to make the best of the limited resources, and the long-standing support that we get from Rep. (Roberto) Gonzales and Sen. (Carlos) Cisneros is incredible. We are a small college in rural northern New Mexico, and we are successfully competing with 26 other colleges and universities in the state for funding.

“Even more remarkable is the fact that in a field of over 350 colleges, UNM-Taos was recently recognized as the 17th fastest growing community college of its size in the nation. This didn’t happen by accident. We are proud of who we are, and most importantly who we serve. We will continue to grow as long as the communities of northern New Mexico need for us to grow.

“Currently, we have two major expansion projects in the works, one on campus and the other in the heart of town. Padre Martínez Hall, one of the first buildings erected on Klauer campus, is scheduled for a major expansion that will accommodate the entire Department of Student Affairs. That will enable us to create a one-stop shop for enrollment, financial aid, advising and all the other services that add up to student success. It will require us to bring modular buildings on campus during construction, but the upside is that we are going to have a beautifully upgraded facility that will meet the needs of our students for many years to come.

“The other large expansion will take place in the old Taos Convention Center on Civic Plaza Drive in the center of the Historic District. Ever since we signed a lease with an option to buy agreement with town government we have been hard at work doing our due diligence: we’ve completed a 250 page environmental impact report, a title search, and are addressing maintenance issues and repairs needed to bring the buildings not only up to code, but up to UNM standards as well.

“But the bones of the buildings are good, and after extensive review and approval by the Facilities Committee of the Board of Regents and then the full Board of Regents, the project goes to the Higher Education Department, the State Board of Finance and finally to the Department of Finance Administration. It’s a long process, but in the end we will be able to get four times the square footage for a third of the price of building a new building,” O'Neill concluded.

It’s not a simple matter balancing budgetary, square footage and programmatic needs for the 17th fastest growing community college of its size in the nation. But the citizens of northern New Mexico deserve not just adequate but excellent facilities to match the needs and expectations of students.