Clark College leaders discuss financial hardship

By Cami Joner, Columbian retail & real estate reporter

Published:

 

Faced with an ever-tightening budget, Clark College leaders hope to stave off cuts at a time when the institution faces strong demand from students seeking to adapt to a changing economy.

Clark’s most drastic option would be to declare a state of financial emergency, a measure voted down — for now — by the Vancouver-based community college’s board of trustees. The declaration would have allowed college administrators to lay off tenured and tenure-track faculty to absorb a 13 percent funding cut proposed by Gov. Chris Gregoire. The college could still declare a state of financial emergency if those cuts go through.

Its state funding has already been slashed in recent years. Clark College received $31.3 million in general education funding in the 2007-08 school year, and has been allocated $24.6 million for the current academic year, said Bob Williamson, vice president of administrative services. The governor’s proposed cuts would take another $3 million out of Clark’s budget.

As the school awaits more news on funding for 2012 and beyond, it is reaching out to students, faculty and staff in search of ideas for making do with less.

Their efforts should keep Clark College afloat, but not without costs to the community, said Royce Pollard, a trustee on the Clark College board and former Vancouver mayor.

“We train the mechanics, dental assistants and nurses of this community,” Pollard said. Continued cuts will create hardships for Clark County employers, by threatening programs that support local businesses, he said.

Funding shortfalls already are being felt by Clark College students, who were hit with a 12 percent increase in tuition this year and are being served by a thinner staff because vacant positions have not been filled.

Williamson said Clark’s tuition is set to increase another 12 percent in fall 2012. He also said college officials don’t want the practice of raising fees to continue.

“If tuition increases continue, some students are going to be priced out of even a community college education, at a time when they need it the most,” he said.

In September, Washington’s Board of Community and Technical Colleges declared a state of financial emergency for the entire community college system, opening the door for the state’s 34 community colleges to follow suit. So far, only Big Bend Community College in Moses Lake has done so.

But Clark College trustees discussed the option with Bob Knight, the college’s president, during a Nov. 30 meeting, as first reported in The Independent, Clark’s student-run newspaper.

If the college were to declare a state of emergency, it would speed up the process for laying off tenured faculty, full-time instructors who are usually protected from dismissal, said John Boesenberg, deputy of human resources at the state board of community and technical colleges.

It usually takes between three months and one year to lay off a tenured instructor, but that could be cut to 60 days, he said.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty represent about 60 of Clark’s 160 faculty members. Part-time or adjunct instructors sign a contract to work for one quarter at a time.

Pollard said he would prefer to retain tenured staff, who tend to stick around and mentor Clark College students.

Without full-time instructors, “we’ll lose the ability to produce the kind of students Clark College is known for,” he said.

Local employers, who often praise Clark College for programs that help them train staff and fill high-demand openings, say they are concerned about the financial health of the institution.

PeaceHealth Southwest Medical Center has hired many Clark nursing school graduates, and often brings on students as clinical interns, said Rich Gibler, the hospital’s director of education services.

“If they don’t get on here, they go to skilled nursing facilities, doctors offices and clinics,” he said. “So it really benefits the community as well.”

State legislators are meeting in a special session this month to find cures for the state’s nearly $2 billion budget shortfall. The fixes could include a ballot measure asking voters for a half-cent sales tax increase through 2014. If approved, the tax revenue would be used to keep college budget cuts at bay, Gregoire has said.

“But it doesn’t address cuts the college has already had to absorb,” Williamson said.

Clark College’s tenured faculty members are represented by the 82,000-member Washington Education Association, which also includes public school teachers. Its local Riverside Uniserve Council did not return a phone call Tuesday. The union’s president, Mary Lindquist, told The Olympian this month that the group doesn’t support Gregoire’s proposed half-cent sales tax hike, saying the measure would hit low-income taxpayers too hard.

With funding uncertain, Williamson said Clark College would continue looking for ways to cut costs, including asking the college council, a 20-member group that includes a cross-section of faculty, students and classified staff, to reach out to constituents and gather feedback for the college’s eight-member executive cabinet of directors.

“Students have been notified through the student email system that they can post their suggestions,” said Barbara Kerr, a college spokeswoman.

The cabinet also plans to meet with the student body’s elected representatives in January to discuss budget options. Kerr said it could take until March for college officials to announce the details about budget cuts.

So far, Kerr said the college has dealt with budget cuts by cutting back on service hours, trimming class sections, and by increasingly relying on part-time faculty and staff.

“Some positions have gone from full-time to half-time or less while other vacant positions have been eliminated or left unfilled,” she said.

Leaving jobs unfilled is what ultimately leads to program cuts, which are already a source of frustration among the local college’s 17,000 students, Kerr said.

“We see the frustration from students who are not able to get the classes they want,” she said. “Sometimes the budget challenges prevent students from moving forward in the most streamlined manner.”