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Back Story

Ask—and You Might Receive

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Christina L. Day had no intention of going to college—until her high school counselor told her that her best option was to get married and raise children. “Seriously, that just made me mad,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘That is not how this is going to go, lady.’”  

So at her high school graduation, Day made a bold move. She approached the local community college recruiter for Central Oregon Community College, Bend, which had publicly offered the top two students in her class full scholarships. Because those students chose to attend four-year universities instead, she walked up to the recruiter and asked, “Hey, I’m the third-ranked student. Would you be willing to give me one of those scholarships?”

 Probably stunned at her audacity, the recruiter agreed. “I asked for what I wanted—and I got it, which changed my life,” Day says.  

This first-generation college student later went on to earn a bachelor’s degree through an adult degree-completion program and eventually obtained her MBA. She’s now the finance division manager, budget/financial services, at Portland Community College (PCC), where she manages a staff of three and a budget of $1.3 billion.

How did you end up at PCC?

I had been working in local government finance in Oregon for almost 20 years. PCC’s position interested me because I’m a community college graduate. Community college changed my life’s path, and I wanted to see if I could contribute from the inside.  

What functions do you supervise?

Because PCC is a large community college, with around 90,000 full-time student equivalents, we’re really specialized in our roles. I supervise the collegewide budget function, which also includes long-range financial forecasting and strategic financial analysis.

Portland Community College’s Downtown Center is located on the downtown Portland campus. PCC consists of four comprehensive campuses, eight centers, and dozens of independent locations throughout the city.

What kind of budget improvements have you implemented since your arrival? 

When I first came to PCC in 2010, the budget process lacked documentation. We use Banner, which can be similar to using a secret language. My predecessor kept all of our customized processes in his head. When he retired, it was all gone. Out of necessity, we launched a project to identify the current practices; that took a lot of detective work and team effort. Once we documented the current processes, we could ask, “Why are we doing it this way?” The progression yielded several lean process improvements with great results.

Such as?

The automation of annual mass salary changes is one improvement. Each year, when we implemented labor negotiation changes, my staff had to physically go in and adjust the budget for every person in a position at the college. Human Resources (HR) does it for the pay adjustment, and we had to make a separate adjustment to change the budget for each position.  

Through this lean process improvement, we realized that both departments were doing the same thing. Now, HR makes the changes, and we push those changes from the HR module into the budget module. We make a few tweaks, and it’s done, cutting hundreds of hours of duplicated staff time—all because we asked the question and had a conversation with another department.

Describe a challenging budget situation you’ve faced.

In 2008 and 2009, we had a huge enrollment spike, as people came back to school to retool and add skills for employability. With the increased enrollment came a spike in revenue, which our campuses became accustomed to. Now that enrollment is declining, we have to rein back spending and remind people that we have to stick to a budget.  

What books have you found helpful in your career? 

At a WACUBO conference a couple of years back, I heard about Strategic Financial Analysis for Higher Education (KPMG, 2010), and I found the book fascinating. I use the formulas to develop ratios and fiscal indicators for all kinds of measures, such as primary reserves, viability, debt burden, and return on net assets. I hope the data will help us make better strategic decisions with our revenue allocations and our spending.  

What’s the most important professional lesson you have learned?

If a rule isn’t working through the proper channels, it can usually be changed. And if the policy or statute can’t be changed, you may be able to meet its requirement by thinking of the issue in a new or different way.

Can you provide an example?

In Oregon, we’ve had a lot of changes in local budget law. After looking at some of the revised statutes and processes, I proposed a change in our appropriation methodology that would make it easier for our departments to track their budgets. Before, we were pooled together, making it difficult to tell who was responsible for which piece. I was able to work with the three regulatory agencies to get a proposal approved so we could build our budgets in a way that worked better for us. 

What’s the biggest career risk you have taken?

You know we accountant types are not big risk takers. Accepting the job at PCC was one of my riskier moves. I had a well-established network in municipal finance, which I left behind for a new culture with a new jargon, missions, and values.  

At a 2014 conference, you delivered a presentation on best practices for resource allocation toward student success. What did you recommend?

Through a Gates Foundation grant, I was invited to work on a Government Finance Officers Association committee to develop best practices. We developed a framework of steps to guide the process by allocating resources according to the college’s strategic goals.  

As funds get more limited, it’s important for colleges to make sure funding programs support student success and completion. That requires a strong strategic plan and direction, evaluation of programs and activities against that plan, and the courage to invest—and divest—in programs according to their contribution in advancing college completion.

What’s your solution for campus safety and security?

We should absolutely improve security systems and train employees and students on how to react to a bad situation. We should also train them on how to get help if they suffer from mental illness; how to relate respectfully to one another; how to be compassionate; and how to value life. I don’t think there is a universal solution to campus violence but if there were, I’m pretty sure it would have more to do with building empathetic relationships and caring for one another as human beings than it would with weapons.

I want to send a big hug to colleagues and friends at Umpqua Community College, Roseburg, Ore. They are still in our thoughts and prayers as they recover [from a recent and serious campus incident]. 

What was your dream job?

I wanted to be a marine biologist or natural scientist of some sort. That was something that girls weren’t encouraged to do at the time—so I went into accounting because I knew I could always get a job in that field to support myself.

How do you unwind from the pressures of the job?

I enjoy spending time with my family, including two daughters, Emily, 15, and Allison, 11. I have learned a number of hobbies—quilting, tai chi, and yoga—through community education here at the college. 

Community service and community involvement are near and dear to me. I have led a Girl Scout troop for years, which gives me the opportunity to help girls become leaders in their communities. I couldn’t become a scientist, but I do want my two girls to understand that they can do—and be—anything they want. I want all the girls in my troop to know they have opportunities.   

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.