Proposed budget cuts are rarely met with anything other than frustration and disdain.
But one proposed cut to Clark College’s 2023-24 budget has received noticeable backlash, including written statements from a faculty union leader and verbal opposition at the most recent board of trustees meeting.
According to staff, the student affairs department is proposing to cut Valentina Pishchanskaya-Cayanan, a tenured mental health counselor and former Ukrainian refugee. The proposition prompted concern from staff and community members, who argue that the need for student mental health supports has grown in recent years, particularly among students from marginalized communities.
“It’s just such a mind-blowing proposal to try to cut this person, because if anyone needs mental health support right now, it would be that refugee community,” said Suzanne Southerland, the president of the Clark College faculty union.
As it stands, Clark faces an $8.5 million deficit next year. School leaders asked members of the budget committee — each of which represent the needs of a different department on campus — to propose cuts amounting to an estimated $4.1 million. The deficit comes as a result of decreased enrollment since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, school leaders said.
Mental health support an area of concern
As of this year, Clark College employs 3.8 full-time equivalent mental health counselors, including Pishchanskaya-Cayanan. With a full-time student enrollment of 5,575 students as of fall 2022, that corresponding ratio of 1,467.1 students-to-mental health counselors places Clark among the highest such ratios among community colleges in the state.
Data received from a school representative also showed that the student demand for mental health counseling services is on the rise. 207 students have accessed such services this year, compared with 165 in the 2021-2022 school year: an increase of 25.5 percent.
“It’s not uncommon for students to come in during my office hours, where I try to create an informal environment for them to speak with me. That often leads to students breaking down in tears,” said Tyler Frank, a professor of transitional studies. “It would be amazing if we could hire counselors who reflect the diversity of the college and of the community who can offer the support we so desperately need right now.”
Frank’s work in the transitional studies department sees him teach some of the school’s most at-risk students. Among the largest departments at Clark, transitional studies helps a student take that first step to their degree or pathway of choice elsewhere on campus, which often requires the initial completion of a GED or other high school completion program, as well as English as a second language classes. The department has nearly doubled enrollment in the last year, Frank said.
“These are key classes for recent immigrants, low-income students and refugees,” Frank said. “To have a counselor who can provide that sensitive care for them is so fundamental, it’s easy maybe if we do interact with some folks to not recognize the trauma they’re dealing with.”
Southerland also claims that the cut would violate Pishchanskaya-Cayanan’s union agreement as a tenured employee.
“Usually when there’s a layoff, you fire from the bottom up,” Southerland said. “We definitely stand by our contract, they’re not following the order of reduction. I see all of this as a symptom of lack of experience.”
Leaders advise caution
In response, Clark leaders are asking staff, students and community members to remember that this proposed cut is just that: a proposal.
“This is a common misconception with this stage of the process,” said Sabra Sand, Clark’s vice president of operations. “The budget committee’s intent is to work through (all the propositions) and make choices about their feedback.”
This year, Clark’s various departments shared presentations of what they suggest might be cut in the event of a budget shortfall. While as much as 87 percent of Clark’s budget goes to “human capital,” Sand said they typically first look to eliminate vacant positions and excess class materials and equipment.
In the coming weeks, the budget review committee will review each presentation and the respective proposed cuts and, after hearing feedback from stakeholders, decide whether or not to formally suggest the cuts be included in the first reading of the proposed budget at next month’s board of trustees meeting. The final budget would then move to be approved by the June board meeting at the earliest.
Brad Avakian, Clark’s vice president of human resources, added that there are plenty of other proposed cuts on the table that they haven’t received as much public feedback on because of the focus on the counselor.
“Certainly there was input in that one meeting, but there has been input from other meetings and some of that has been very supportive in the transparent ways in which these proposals have been rolled out,” Avakian said.
Sand also said that because of how the school reaches out to staff whose positions may be cut ahead of time, the process is inherently stressful but doesn’t always mean the decisions are fully final.
“We want to let people know well ahead of time so that they aren’t caught off guard,” Sand said. “Through that process it does create fear even though we are trying to be transparent. I think people are thinking we’re jumping to a decision.”
Frank and other staff, however, worry that their feedback might not contribute to the final decisions.
“My impression is that a lot of faculty are upset about this proposal. I’m certainly worried that we’re not being heard,” Frank said. “When these things are referred to as ‘proposals,’ it’s almost as if they’re essentially already a done deal.”