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Support rallied for Clark College paralegal program

Legal community's petition urges school to not cut training

By , Columbian Breaking News Reporter
Published: October 16, 2015, 7:24pm
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The local legal community is rallying support for Clark College’s paralegal program, which is slated to be eliminated as part of proposed budget cuts.

Judges, attorneys, court staff and paralegals in Clark County are among a growing number of those who have signed a petition in support of keeping the program alive.

“The quality of education that the paralegals get there is (excellent) bar none,” said Superior Court Judge Gregory Gonzales, who signed the petition and is encouraging others to do the same.

Gonzales, who previously taught at Clark College as an adjunct professor, said students are learning from working lawyers.

“They’re giving the students a very practical education of what will be expected of them when they graduate,” he said.

Under the supervision of a lawyer, paralegals are trained to assist with various tasks including research and legal writing and documentation. Clark College’s paralegal program is one of a number of programs slated for the chopping block to reduce the college’s budget by $2 million. Other programs include humanities, medical radiology, nursing assistant program, surveying and geometrics, fitness training, addiction counselor education, French, German, and reading.

The proposed cuts are a response to decreases in state funding and declining enrollment, which the college reports has fallen 19 percent over a four-year period as the recovering job market drew would-be students into the workforce. The final budget proposal is scheduled to be completed by Oct. 30.

Tim Cook, vice president of instruction, said that the budget proposal revealed to staff in September cuts $2.6 million, giving administrators a $600,000 cushion to “buy back” some programs.

He said that he’s received more than 250 pieces of feedback about the various program cuts.

“We’re getting a ton of feedback, which is great. It’s what we asked for,” he said. “Some of it, it’s really challenging the data and information and some of it’s just impassioned comments saying this (program) is important, this is a community need.”

The biggest driver for the proposed elimination of the paralegal program, Cook said, was data showing that the program over-produces candidates for the number of jobs available in the market.

Paralegal Program Director Layne Russell has submitted documents arguing that the data the college is using doesn’t accurately portray what’s happening. Cook’s numbers, he said, only account for newly created paralegal positions and not the graduates who gain a job through turnover. Also, he said, many paralegal graduates go on to work in similar fields such as legal departments of companies or government agencies.

The proposed budget gives a rationale for cutting the paralegal program, one of which is that there are other training programs in the region.

Some are online programs, Russell added, which offer no comparison to the face-to-face instruction available at Clark College.

Others include Pioneer Pacific College in Wilsonville, Ore., which doesn’t have the same accreditation as Clark, Russell said, and Portland Community College, which prepares students for Oregon legal procedures.

“It’s comparing apples to oranges,” he said.

The paralegal program also offers a capstone internship program through area law offices, connecting students with potential employers.

Stefanie Ellis, attorney at Green & Ritchie who along with divorce attorney Nathan Petersen is circulating the petition, says that she’s helped make connections for students. Ellis said that local employers rely on the program for highly qualified legal assistants.

“Without that program, I don’t even know where I’d look,” she said.

The paralegal program also allows students to work as Court Appointed Special Advocates through YWCA Clark County while earning credits.

“The catchphrase here is service learning. While in service in the community, you are learning,” Russell said.

Kate Sacamano, director of philanthropy at YWCA, said the paralegal program is instrumental in helping fill gaps in legal support for domestic violence victims.

“There is a shortage of family law practitioners and this creates an additional burden for victims of domestic violence because they are unable to access legal representation which can ultimately impact their safety,” she said. “This program is needed now more than ever.”

Cook said that hearing from members of the community has been valuable and could help sway decision-makers.

“That’s been really compelling,” he said. “That’s the type of feedback that’s been really helpful for us …It’s not all about money, it’s really about community impact.”

Supporters of the program are planning to present the petition to Clark College by Oct. 26 ahead of the Oct. 30 meeting about the proposed budget.

Those interested in signing the petition can do so at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/saving-the-clark-college-paralegal-program.

Russell also invites community members to voice their opinion at an open meeting with Clark President Bob Knight at 2 p.m. on Oct. 22.

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