Clark College faculty pushing for pay bump

School leaders say there’s no sustainable source to fund a hike

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer

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Bargaining over Clark College faculty members’ next work contract is off to a rocky start.

Union leaders say top administrators have given instructors the cold shoulder; officials say the union must face cold, hard reality.

The faculty union, about 300 members strong, has pressed for what it calls a modest Clark contribution to allow the first salary-grid step increase in three years.

In that time, Washington hasn’t funded cost-of-living-adjustments for Clark’s teachers.

President Bob Knight and his cabinet, wary of new budget cuts as lawmakers wrestle with a soaring, multibillion-dollar state deficit, say there’s no sustainable cash flow to afford the step increase, however. A new labor agreement would cover all the approximate 900 instructors employed by Clark, nearly 700 of whom are part-time, or adjunct, instructors.

It’s a familiar skirmish — one that drew more than 40 faculty members to Clark’s most recent board of trustees meeting, with some holding placards to voice frustration. Their complaint: “$0 for faculty” pay sweeteners — the administration’s stance so far — is unjust.

But, what makes this squabble different is that, unlike struggling private firms and revenue-starved local or state agencies, business has boomed for Clark College during the recession.

Clark’s student head count has surged about 50 percent to more than 16,000 just since 2007.

While officials note the state chronically underpays the college’s per-student share, a heap of “excess tuition” dollars has come Clark’s way as tuition rates were raised 14.4 percent since 2008, a change approved by legislators.

Somewhere in all that windfall, which the union said helped Clark gather nearly $2 million in “excess funds” from a 2009-10 operating budget worth $60 million, officials surely could carve out $80,000 to allow salary-step hikes worth about 6 percent, union leaders say.

That’s fair reward for teachers who have been asked to take on more students in each class and take on more class sections to handle the deluge, they say.

“It becomes a question of priorities,” said Cosimo Giovine, English instructor and a former corporate business employee who has crunched Clark’s budget documents for the faculty bargaining team.

Giovine and others point to what they call questionable spending in lean times.

Items range from hundreds of thousands of dollars earmarked for a new campus phone-and-security system, to a few thousand dollars for pulley-and-rope rescue gear, to nearly $1 million spent annually in recent years by Clark’s marketing and communications arm — including a robust advertising blitz while Clark struggles to keep pace with students already on hand.

“We’re getting all this excess tuition, and we’re not allowed to touch a drop of it,” Giovine said.

He said recent budgets show consistent diversion of unspent departmental funds, which he and others argue could boost salaries that trail behind those at many Washington two-year schools.

“We’re asked to find the money, we’ve found the money and we’re still being told, ‘No,’ ” Giovine said.

‘Zero-sum’ crunch

Knight defends his budget team’s choices.

A better security network and standout marketing in highly competitive Vancouver-Portland are sound moves and fit Clark’s strategic plan, he said. Also, marketing has not been spared from budget cuts as the school tightens its belt, he said.

Knight said Clark must brace for a new round of immediate budget cuts due from Saturday’s special legislative session, followed by deeper funding reductions in a problematic 2011-13 state budget.

State funding could fall 15 percent or more the next two years, just as federal stimulus money runs dry, he said.

“Those one-time moneys are going to go very quickly; they can’t go toward salary increases,” Knight said, placing the excess tuition off-limits. “It goes against our budget principle,” one that he said was made clear at the start of labor talks.

“Everyone’s going to feel the pain in this; it’s going to be ugly,” Knight said. He said union reps have balked at proposed alternatives, not cognizant that a “zero-sum” game stands to get even worse when additional budget cutbacks become clear.

“The reality is, they just don’t like the options and they’re not willing to compromise,” he said.

Hard feelings

Other specifics peculiar to Washington two-year schools further complicate matters.

Unlike faculty at four-year institutions, instructors get no cut of tuition revenue to support their collectively bargained salary grids. (State faculty leaders will lobby Olympia this year to gain similar access).

Rather, unspent “turnover” dollars that surface whenever a longer-tenured teacher departs and is replaced by a cheaper, younger tenured teacher go into a special salary-step pot. That’s per long-standing, bargained policy.

Clark faculty leaders say that in several instances, the school has moved those tenured job positions to other departments (nothing unusual, given shifting needs) — but labeled several as “new” and nontenure-track positions, thus shorting the fund.

Giovine and Marcia Roi, addiction counseling professor and head of Clark’s faculty union, say they’ve found discrepancies, and only after months of fighting for documentation.

“That’s not true, that’s an absolute falsity,” Knight said of the alleged shell game. “I’ve committed to them that every single faculty member will be replaced. But, I just don’t know when” due to budget uncertainty, he said.

Giovine and Roi claim an ongoing lack of transparency from Clark administrators.

“The relationship has been damaged,” Roi said. The union showing at the Nov. 23 trustee meeting was meant to deliver that message.

Knight said better understanding exists among “mainstream faculty” of Clark’s fiscal plight.

“There’s a big difference between the faculty union and the faculty of the college,” he said.

The two sides have until June to wrestle, before the current two-year labor agreement ends.

“We’re going to stick together, to minimize the pain,” Knight predicted.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or howard.buck@columbian.com.