Budget shortfalls in the public sector usually translate into tax hikes, reductions in services or increased user fees.

In the case of Alamo Colleges, where officials are looking at a $7 million deficit in their $300 million budget for next year, we urge that leaders find a way to streamline operations to reduce overhead before passing on costs to the taxpayers or students.

Keeping college affordable without diminishing the quality of the education must be the goal of the Alamo Colleges board of trustees as they figure out how to deal with the projected shortfall.

Tuition for the Alamo Colleges is already among the most expensive among community colleges in the state, but it remains considerably lower than that at four-year public universities. Obtaining higher education at community college must remain affordable.

More than half of incoming college freshmen begin their higher education at community colleges, and it is important to maintain access.

College district trustees must find ways to cut costs while minimizing the impact on students.

The budgetary problems are being blamed on a tanking economy, flat property tax revenue and ongoing expenses incurred by the district last fiscal year.

While the Alamo Colleges tax levy may be among the lowest in the state, the college district board cannot expect a taxpayer bailout without making real sacrifices first.

And Bexar County property values are virtually certain to rise again.

Officials with the Alamo Colleges are investigating the possibility of consolidating academic departments as well as cutting admission and registration and student financial services, continuing education, teaching certifications programs, printing and copying services, Express-News staff writer Melissa Ludwig reported.

Additionally, the administration is thinking of outsourcing operation of the natatorium, charging out-of-district dual credit students $40 per course and doing away with printed course catalogs.

Those are worthy of exploration even in a good economy, but steps that raise the cost of education should be last on the list.

Over the years, Palo Alto, St. Philip's, Northwest Vista, Northeast Lakeview and San Antonio College with a combined enrollment of about 53,000 course credit students have pretty much operated independently.

During the last few years under the direction of Chancellor Bruce Leslie, the district has done an excellent job of branding the five colleges under one name and working to align the curriculum so that course numbers and descriptions are the same at all campuses.

The changes have not come without resistance, but they have proven good for the district.

Continued streamlining of services and dismantling of fiefdoms that have developed on the individual campuses over the years would go a long way toward reducing costs.

Times are tough, but San Antonio's strong underpinning will sustain the district in the long term.

Along with students, property owners merit sensitive treatment in this difficult economic environment.

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