After years of feeling ignored by lawmakers, faculty and students at some of Washington’s community and technical colleges walked out of classes Tuesday, urging the Legislature to invest in their schools.
While Walla Walla Community College staff and students stayed put, the school is also calling for change.
The walkouts are part of a week of action organized by American Federation of Teachers union chapters in the Puget Sound region. Organizers estimated that around 1,000 people participated in Tuesday’s events in Western Washington.
At Seattle Central College, administrators and students held a rally in the plaza, where they emailed and texted legislators before marching down Broadway Avenue. They lamented what they said was inaction from lawmakers.
“I often feel that community colleges are the forgotten children of higher education,” said English professor Phebe Jewell.
The last time the state gave faculty raises beyond regular cost-of-living increases was in 2008, according to Laura McDowell, director of communications for the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges. As a result, she said, many schools are struggling to retain faculty.
That’s true for Walla Walla Community College, as well. President Derek Brandes said today that although the state is recovering from the recession of a decade ago, the renewed financial health has not trickled down to community colleges.
Lawmakers are not prioritizing the two-year schools and letting them rebound, Brandes said, meaning that with every cost-of-living raise, he’s forced to offset the state’s 65% funding with another 35% out of WWCC’s budget.
Community-college faculty in Washington are paid around 12% less than faculty in peer states, according to a study prepared by the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University.
Full-time community-college faculty in King County were paid an average of $61,276 in 2016-17, according to the study. It found that faculty in King County would need an average of $37,000 more per year to match the purchasing power of faculty in Southern Central Washington, where it’s highest in the state.
An already-negotiated 5% raise for state workers in King County to offset higher living costs is expected to make it into the final two-year budget. Other state workers are expected to receive 3% increases each year.
While the state has approved some cost-of-living increases in recent years, it’s left colleges to cover 35% of them, according to John Boesenberg, deputy executive director of business operations for the board. Recent tuition increases — which have hovered around 2% in recent years — haven’t been large enough to make up the difference.
The state House has proposed reducing college’s obligation to 25%, while the Senate has proposed 15%, Boesenberg said — but on Tuesday, staff said that’s not enough to fix years of stagnation.
“We’ve had to continue to make cuts just to stay still,” Seattle Central President Sheila Lange said at the Tuesday rally, mentioning trims to staff, programs and services. “It’s a shame that we do not pay faculty what they’re worth.”
Brandes said such cuts are keenly felt in Walla Walla.
“We have these great programs out here but because of the state’s lack of funding, we’re slowly erasing the ability to serve the community the way they want to be served. And we have to work extra hard to keep our staff happy so they will continue to serve our students.”
WWCC has been nominated for and awarded the national Aspen Prize as the top community college in the nation, and while the school is still producing high-level education, being on the East side of the state is a disadvantage, Brandes said.
“We don’t have a lot of power because the Democrats are in charge … on the West side you’re seeing faculty walk out because that’s where the leverage is.”
The financial situation has aligned WWCC faculty, staff and students in a way he’s not witnessed before, Brandes said, adding that the public needs to realize that to have a prosperous and education community, investment has to be made in their colleges.
“Community colleges are open to all. I don’t get why politicians don’t make this a major platform for themselves,” he said.
Of 330 Seattle Colleges faculty who responded to a union pay survey earlier this year, 84% said they worked more than one job or depended on another person’s income. About one-fifth of faculty who responded said they worked three to five jobs. Three-fourths said they’ve considered leaving the district to pursue better pay or opportunities elsewhere.
Adjunct faculty say they face an especially dire situation, as they work on a quarter-to-quarter basis with no job security and poor pay, despite their advanced degrees.
“I adore my students. Some of them have overcome the hardest of obstacles to be there,” said Laurel Ecke, who teaches psychology part time at Shoreline and North Seattle College. “That’s what keeps me there. I don’t need a lot of money or big paychecks. But what I’m struggling with is just to be able to afford to live in Seattle.”
While the walkouts focused on salary, Jewell said she was also concerned about cuts to student services that community college’s large populations of first-generation college students, immigrants and nontraditional students depend on.
A legislative analysis from fall 2018 found that for every 1,923 Washington community-college students, there was only one faculty counselor.