Community colleges across the state are facing declining enrollment and cuts to their budgets, but the issue of where to trim has become especially contentious at Green River College.
Classes have ended for the academic year at Green River College in Auburn, but there’s no end in sight to a dispute between the faculty union and the college’s administration, which have been at odds over a contract for more than a year.
Although all of the state’s community colleges face the double-whammy of state budget cuts and shrinking enrollments, Green River is the only public college where budget issues have become so contentious.
President Eileen Ely wants to close three Green River programs because of declining enrollment and a looming $5.7 million shortfall. Faculty-union officials argue that she is trying to close programs run by their members in an attempt to intimidate the union.
There have been marches on campus, calls for Ely to resign, two no-confidence votes on her leadership and, most recently, a vote in favor of a measure authorizing the union to call for a strike if necessary. Meetings of the board of trustees have been packed with dissenters.
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The union has filed complaints with the state Public Employee Relations Commission, and the commission has agreed that at least two of the complaints fall within its jurisdiction and warrant a hearing.
Late last month, the trustees released a letter affirming their confidence in Ely, and describing the work they need to do to balance the budget.
The board took that unusual step “because of the sheer number of fliers on campus that are derogatory to the president,” said Allison Friedly, executive director of Green River’s college relations. However, the board has declined to discuss the issues because “they’re supposed to be impartial,” Friedly said, and Ely will only answer questions from the media if they are submitted in advance.
Friedly said if a program is closed, the college will continue teaching it until all students currently enrolled have finished, or will give them an option to transfer to a nearby school.
Because the state Legislature hasn’t yet completed its budget, many colleges are expecting cuts and making contingency plans, said Marty Brown, executive director of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. “Some are basing their plans on existing enrollments, and some are assuming their enrollments are going down,” he said.
The state community-college board expects enrollment at all colleges to drop this year by about 3 percent. That’s because two-year college enrollment soars when the economy is bad — laid-off workers go back to school to sharpen their skills — and drops when the economy improves and employers start hiring again.
The numbers play out differently from campus to campus because each college manages its own budget. In 2015-16, Green River — one of the largest community colleges in the greater Puget Sound area — expects to receive $39 million in revenue, from tuition payments and state funds, and predicts a shortfall of $5.7 million, according to a YouTube video the college posted to explain the school’s financial concerns.
Green River’s enrollment has declined from 9,370 in the 2010-11 academic year to 8,971 in 2013-14, the latest year for which numbers are available, according to the state board’s figures.
Karen Strickland, president of the American Federation of Teachers-Washington and a former community-college instructor, said the fight between administrators and the union at Green River College is unusually heated, and it’s rare for the faculty at a community college to twice hold a no-confidence vote in the president and approve a strike authorization. The Green River faculty union is affiliated with AFT-Washington.
She said she was struck by the college’s decision to close two programs in the trades — auto-body repair and carpentry — because the college is putting the finishing touches on a $34 million building that will house two of those programs.
“If you look at carpentry in particular, there is booming construction growth” in the area now, Strickland said. “This is a program preparing people specifically for that work. So that doesn’t make sense.”
Friedly, the spokeswoman for Green River, said carpentry is on the chopping block because it’s an expensive program to run, with low enrollment numbers, and because federal labor research shows a degree isn’t necessary to get a job as a carpenter. The auto-body repair program and geographical information services, which also may be eliminated, have low enrollment numbers and are expensive to run.
“We were trying to make a minimal impact,” she said.
Mark Millbauer, president of the faculty union, runs the auto-body-repair program; Glen Martin, the college’s carpentry instructor, is one of the union’s contract negotiators. Both would lose their jobs if the programs were to close.
Millbauer said the new building contains $250,000 worth of auto-body paint equipment. “To not move us in there by the fall is a gross waste of taxpayer funds,” he said.
But Friedly said it’s best to make the decision now because equipment for both auto body and carpentry is due to be moved into the new building this summer, and more needs to be purchased. “If we were going to close these programs, now would be the time,” she said.
The union has made a presentation to administrators showing how to trim costs in different parts of the budget and save the programs.
On the union contract, Millbauer said the two sides have been at a stalemate for more than a year, and are only $152,800 apart. He says the union has lowered its demands several times.
At issue is a request that the college provide more work to faculty members so they can make additional money, union officials said. Cost-of-living increases aren’t part of the negotiations because thosemust be approved by the state Legislature.
Brown, the executive director of the state board, said he’s talked to Ely and to the chair of the board of trustees about the rationale for cutting the auto-body repair, carpentry and GIS programs. But the board doesn’t step in when contracts are in dispute.
“In the end, it has to be worked out between themselves — the administration and the faculty,” he said.