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Proposed Cuts At Green River Community College Inflame Tensions

Kyle Stokes
Green River College faculty union president Mark Millbauer speaks during a May 13 demonstration on campus. That day, the union estimated 400 people protested proposed cuts of the school's auto body, carpentry and geographic information systems programs.

Kyle Preston, 24, is two quarters away from completing a degree from a program Green River College has proposed to cut.

Preston is one of a handful of students taking classes in auto body technology at the Auburn community college — one of three small trade programs administrators have put on the chopping block because of what could be a $4.4 million budget shortfall.

The cuts would come at a personal cost for Preston. He's an Army veteran and pays for school with help of the post-9/11 G.I. Bill's "educational benefit" — but the subsidy only lasts for so long.

"I can't get that time back," said Preston, who served in Afghanistan for a year. "So if they cut this program, that's months off my educational benefit down the drain."

Credit Kyle Stokes / KPLU
Auto body student Kyle Preston, 24, holds a sign up to a window into a board room at Green River College's administration building during a protest organized by the faculty union. He tries to catch the attention of someone inside to no avail. "That just pisses me off," he said.

The three trade programs tagged for closure are tiny; auto body, carpentry and geographic information systems (G.I.S.) courses enroll fewer than 60 of Green River's 9,000 students.

Nonetheless, the proposed cuts have fanned old animosities between administrators and the faculty union.

Union members -- who ?have been without a collective bargaining agreement since last summer -- believe? the ?school administration is retaliating against two union leaders who are the auto body and carpentry programs' only full-time faculty members. 

Green River administrators deny the cuts are retaliatory. They targeted auto body, carpentry and G.I.S., administrators said,? because those are ?single-instructor, low-enrollment programs. 

Cutting small programs minimizes the student ?impact of necessary budget ?cuts, administrators said.?

Faculty members remain skeptical.? The ?proposed cuts have inspired "no-confidence" petitions and have ?spurred? protests on the wooded, tranquil campus.

"I think it would be unfair if we made other choices just on the basis that 'Oh, this is the lead of the union,'" said Green River College vice president Derek Brandes. "Should I cut another program to avoid dealing with the obvious retaliation claims that were going to come about?"

'Dirty Pool'?

For community colleges everywhere, the improving economy has stalled enrollments that had spiked during the recession. At Green River, that trend has sent tuition revenues downward. With the state budget still up in the air, Brandes says even in the best-case scenario, the college must make an initial cut of more than $891,000 from its instructional budget.

But auto body instructor and faculty union president Mark Millbauer reads the situation differently. The union has filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the college, accusing administrators of "bargaining outside of mediation," as well as showing a "lack of willingness to be transparent [or] to bargain in good faith."

Millbauer said administrators are using the process of cutting his job and that of another union leader to force other, bigger programs to raise their enrollment caps — that is, to enroll more students in their classes.

"The administration is blackmailing these other divisions saying these other divisions saying, 'If you don't raise your caps, we're going to [cut] these two guys that you like so much that happen to be leading your union and we're going to close their programs down,'" Millbauer said. "That's dirty. That's dirty pool."

Administration Trying To Find Solutions?

But what Millbauer calls "blackmail," Brandes calls a good-faith effort to help faculty save their jobs.

"I'm trying to help them with several possible solutions that would work," said Brandes. The program cuts are not final until June 8, the deadline for auto body, carpentry and G.I.S. faculty to submit cost-cutting proposals that would save their jobs.

Initially, administrators identified a fourth program for reduction, parent-child education. But the head of that program — also a leader in the faculty union — identified ways to make it more cost-effective. The administration now says they will not end the program.

Brandes calls the initial reductions of $891,000 a "wave one cut"; the college will likely have to scale back further. But if Green River were to raise its programs' average enrollment cap college-wide by the equivalent of one full-time student, the school would save $750,000 — closing nearly 85 percent of the budget gap.

What about raising student tuition? Not an option, Brandes said.

"We're at the point where we can no longer really afford to backfill the cuts on the backs of students. The reality is all colleges and universities are going to have to look at what they do and make some tough choices."

What's Next?

If Green River's auto body program ends, it's not clear what would happen to student Kyle Preston. He fears not all of the credits he's earned would not transfer to another auto body program, meaning he'd face the choice of starting over again or picking a new trade.

It's not clear Preston would necessarily lose all his credits, however. Brandon Rogers, dean of instruction at Bates Technical College in Tacoma — 20 miles from Green River College — said students switching from similar trade programs at other colleges are often able to transfer most of their credits. Instructors review transfer students' transcripts and would likely give students some sort of competency-based entrance test.

Union leaders have criticized administrators for not communicating directly with students about their options should the program cuts go through.

More than 100 tenured faculty at the college have signed a letter expressing "no confidence" in Green River president Eileen Ely. The college's Board of Trustees issued a statement late last week saying they stand behind her.

"We remain optimistic," the statement read, "that with President Ely's leadership and the earnest collaboration of faculty, classified staff, students, board and community, the quality of the education and programs at Green River College will be maintained during this process."

Kyle Stokes covers the issues facing kids and the policies impacting Washington's schools for KPLU.