Community college financial decision worries union

  • By Donna Gordon Blankinship Associated Press
  • Wednesday, October 12, 2011 1:26pm
  • Local NewsNorthwest

SEATTLE — The decision to declare a financial emergency at Washington state’s community and technical colleges is drawing concern from the union that represents faculty at the schools.

Last month’s action by the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges would allow individual colleges

to declare their own financial emergencies and then have an easier time laying off faculty without having to adhere to some contracted job protections.

“Individual colleges can invoke the law,” said Sandra Schroeder, president of the Washington chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. “Then there’s no longer any reasonable protections we can give to the people who have been targeted. Seniority becomes fairly meaningless in this process.”

Under the rule, full-time tenured instructors and those on the tenure-track could be laid off as easily as part-time, non-tenured teachers.

But Schroeder’s worries may be just an exercise if no one decides to invoke the rule. To date, no colleges have exercised the authority or announced an intention to do so, Deb Merle, deputy executive director, government relations, for the college board, said Tuesday.

During their September meeting, board chair Sharon Fairchild encouraged the colleges to continue their collaborative process, working with faculty, staff and students, to resolve their financial problems before invoking the emergency rule

Schroeder said colleges and their faculty have done a good job finding solutions together, including furlough days, salary cuts, early retirement and not filling job openings. But, she said, the board doesn’t understand the emotional impact of invoking this rule. “They can get the same end through bargaining.”

The union has not heard of anyone planning to use the rule, but Schroeder predicted it could use it as a bargaining threat.

“It really un-levels the playing field,” she said.

The last time the board declared a financial emergency was in June 2009 for the 2009-11 biennium. Only one of the state’s more than 30 community and technical colleges — Bates Technical College — took advantage of the rule during that time.

Bates President Lyle Quasim said the college used the declaration to facilitate layoffs of half a dozen full-time instructors. The economy necessitated the closing or shrinking of career training for bookkeeping and accounting, cosmetology and land survey, he said.

“When you have significant reductions to take, there are basically only a few places you can take them,” he said. And unlike other community and technical colleges, where about 50 percent of the faculty are part-time, and therefore easier to lay off, at Bates, 90 percent of the faculty are full-time. Quasim said that’s why Bates was the only college to use the financial emergency rule last time.

This time around, he said, he expected his college to wait to make any decision until after the state’s November revenue forecast is released, and perhaps after the Legislature convenes for a special session at the end of November to deal with a budget shortfall expected to be as high as $2 billion.

The state board approved the financial emergency after tabling the idea to give members more time to monitor the economy to see if conditions might improve.

“These are extraordinarily challenging times, requiring us to make many difficult decisions, including this one,” said Fairchild, in a statement.

The 2011 Legislature cut state dollars going to community colleges by $76.8 million for the current fiscal year and by 12.6 percent or $84.3 million for fiscal 2013. State funding has dropped from $669 million last year to $592 million in fiscal 2012 and to $585 million in fiscal 2013. Faculty and staff salaries make up about 80 percent of those totals.

Most, but not all, of the cuts will be made up with legislative-approved tuition increases.

Schroeder said state law is harder on community college instructors than it is on instructors and professors at Washington’s four-year colleges.

No similar law allowing such a financial emergency exists for Washington’s four year colleges, and she said other laws could create similar “problems” for college instructors. She thinks the inequity dates back to the when community college faculty organized into a union before university instructors.

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