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Layoffs begin as Walla Walla Community College crisis deepens

WWCC student recreation center

The new student-funded recreation center is continuing to take shape at Walla Walla Community College.

As Walla Walla Community College prepared for another round of layoffs last week during its ongoing financial crisis, some faculty spoke out about what they see as administrative mismanagement, board apathy and other mistakes.

About 24 people were expected to get pink slips starting two days ago, said Jim Peiterson, president of the college union.

Peiterson has worked at WWCC for 25 years and is an American studies instructor in addition to his role with the Walla Walla chapter of Washington Education Association’s higher education branch.

The fresh job losses are part of continuing problems at the college, Peiterson and others said in a recent gathering of some faculty members.

But WWCC board of trustees Chairman Tim Burt said the board takes the current budget situation “very seriously” and supports college President Derek Brandes and his leadership team.

Historically the board approves balanced budgets, Burt said, but those have relied on reserve funds to close the gap between revenues and expenditures.

Reserves on hand are now below levels mandated by policy — meaning even with such reserves, Walla Walla Community College would be facing a budget deficit, he said.

While budget decisions have been difficult, they are necessary to ensure student success and long-term sustainability for the college, Burt said, noting budget and other decisions are done in open board meetings and are available afterward via published minutes.

Despite cutbacks, Brandes has maintained an optimism about the future of the college, including new bachelor programs and other positive changes.

“We have a very exciting future ahead,” he said recently.

Meanwhile, union members say many of the college’s issues are not new, but have reached an intolerable level that threaten more jobs and the school’s future, Peiterson said.

Financial numbers line up with their concerns.

Financial crisis

At last month’s board meeting, WWCC’s interim vice president of finance, Peggy Lauermen, gave trustees a picture of the problem.

The school, she said, had already used 70% of its adjusted budget of $33,752,772 for the whole year, rather than the 50% it should have midway through its fiscal year in January. Right now, the budget doesn’t have a basis in the school’s reality, she said.

And a $1 million hit is coming in June with fiscal year-end costs, Lauerman said.

“We are in a financial crisis.”

Multiple factors are in the school’s money woes, Brandes told the Union-Bulletin in September, including lower enrollment and the state’s reduced tuition formula for community colleges.

Then, he called for immediate reductions to balance the budget and ensure long-term sustainability for the school.

Cuts at that time included 16 staff positions, 10 of which were already open through retirements and resignations, Brandes said last fall.

Burt agreed. Making the budget fit the student footprint is necessary to endure WWCC’s long-term sustainability, he said in a written statement.

The school has dropped programs like farrier science and medical assisting. School officials have said the programs did not pull their weight in enrollment.

WWCC officials closed the longtime ceramics studio last summer, and the golf team was dissolved, Peiterson confirmed.

Classes and other offerings must be relevant to community needs, Brandes said last week.

The president emphasized what he’s said many times — a strong economy and job market discourage college enrollment. Only one of Washington’s 34 state colleges is not in enrollment decline and facing budget challenges as a result, he said.

Brandes said that last year WWCC served a total of 4,921 students; 2,878 received state tuition help. Others paid their own way or were funded through other state contracts.

However, a document presented to the board on Jan. 9 noted state-supported enrollment of full-time students in the 2019 fall quarter was 2,276, a decline of 91 people, or nearly 4%, from fall 2018.

Other groups saw an increase, however, according to the fall enrollment report. Contract students, most of which are in corrections education, increased about 1%, and self-funded students went from 44 full-time students to 67.

More than 1,000 fewer full-time students are enrolled than a decade ago, Peiterson said, recalling WWCC’s enrollment once peaked at around 6,500.

The current situation, he said, “is beyond a natural economic cycle.”

Contributing factors

Math instructor Chris Mehl said the school has suffered from the lack of a marketing director for the past few years, and that’s contributed to declining enrollment.

That position was approved for 2019-2020, Burt said, but pointed out such a hire is prudent only after the most pressing needs have been analyzed and the budget made to fit the situation.

Sustaining employees and program offerings over the years has halved WWCC’s reserve fund, from the 20% called for by board policy to 10%, or about $3,267,000, Brandes told the Union-Bulletin this past fall.

“We’re aware of the issues; we’re not denying any of that,” Peiterson said last month.

“We are questioning this administration’s actions while we head into this crisis. It’s fair to ask the president and his team their culpability.”

No one disputes state and nationwide trends are affecting what happens at WWCC, faculty senate President Michael Rostollan said.

Rostollan teaches in the business administration bachelor’s degree program in addition to leading the faculty senate, a governing body of teachers on the Walla Walla and Clarkston campuses.

Rostallan’s leadership encompasses all faculty, of which about 60% are members of the union Periterson leads.

He and Peiterson said they represent a multitude of staff who have voiced grave concerns.

Staff concerns

The funding and enrollment pressures are compounded by a lack of communication and absence of leadership from the school’s administration, Peiterson and Rostollan told the Union-Bulletin.

And morale at the school is terrible, the handful of faculty members present at that meeting with the U-B agreed.

This is not new to Brandes’ leadership that began in 2016, said art instructor Lisa Rasmussen.

“Certainly there’s been a hangover” from former President Steven VanAusdale’s long tenure at the college, she said.

But Brandes has a role in what’s gone wrong, according to faculty.

An anonymous survey taken in December of about 400 Walla Walla and Clarkston campus employees garnered 133 respondents.

The poll was taken in response to “a lot of talk” among teachers about the state of the school’s leadership, Rostollan explained.

When asked if Brandes could effectively lead the college, results from those who answered the survey showed 39% of full-time and 15% of adjunct faculty answered “no,” while about 23% of full-time and 9% of adjunct teachers indicated the president is capable of leadership.

Just under 14% of staff surveyed abstained from responding.

Commentary on the poll ranged from pleas to not push for a case against Brandes to questions about whether the president’s health interferes with his ability to lead.

Leadership

A year ago, Brandes announced he’d been diagnosed with lung cancer.

Since then, he has been in and out of treatment and has relied on Chad Hickox, vice president of instruction, and others to keep the school running when he cannot be there.

But the president has been transparent with board members on this matter, Burt, the board chairman, said.

“The board does not view this as a major problem at this time.”

Some employees feel differently. The leadership system set up to cover Brandes’ absences is inadequate at best, Peiterson said, and is often opaque.

Complete information about the school’s situation has been sparse and difficult to come by, union members said, citing a lack of communication by Hickox and others.

Questions aren’t answered, they said, Brandes’ crew of advisors keeps changing and requests to be more integrated into the planning process have been denied.

“They haven’t given me, as the union president, all the true numbers,” Peiterson said. “They seem to hoard information.”

Brandes said last week in a written response he disagrees.

“We are working hard to improve communication,’’ he said, noting he’s added “State of the College” addresses via internal messaging, in addition to weekly updates.

Top-heavy system

In December, math department chairwoman Julianne Sachs spoke at the board meeting, saying administrative salary expenditures were of particular concern.

“Considering that Walla Walla Community College currently has a president, a provost-executive vice president, two vice presidents, one interim vice president, one acting vice president, one associate vice president, seven deans, four assistant deans, five executive directors, 16 directors, eight assistant directors and other coordinators, supervisors, administrators, managers, division chairs and program leads, I cannot comprehend how governance would not be relevant to the budget,” Sachs told the board, according to records.

She provided a graph showing a rising level of administrator positions, over flat or decreased faculty and staff jobs.

The board has approved those budgets all along, she said, but the system has shown little effectiveness.

“The president’s chosen cabinet, I understand, is supposed to address the budget crisis; however, since you have approved the budget, we have seen little evidence of such productivity from the cabinet.”

In his email to the Union-Bulletin, Brandes said the college has hired more faculty to launch applied bachelor degrees and the criminal justice program.

“Some new administrative positions were hired to deal with new realities facing colleges — campus safety, student conduct and Title IX state and federal compliance,” he said.

According to data supplied by Brandes, faculty numbered 128 in 2015 and 134 in 2019. Administrators have hovered between 115 and 123 in those same years.

There were 425 adjunct teachers in 2015, and 386 were employed in 2019. Classified staff has remained the steadiest at about 126.

This month’s layoffs, Brandes said, will be spread out across faculty, administrative and classified staff, with most coming from part-time positions.

To that end, some teachers have told Peiterson they fear if they speak up about the school’s leadership problems, they’ll be the ones losing jobs or facing some kind of retaliation, such as cuts to their programs, the union leader said.

Generally, though, people seem to like Brandes, according to the faculty group in the Jan. 21 meeting, but his frequent absences are hard on everything.

“I believe the cancer interferes,” Peiterson said as others nodded. “How can it not be impacting his job? It’s a huge job.”

Transitional studies teacher Jennifer Vaughn agreed.

“Derek needs to seek help. I think he tried to be the hero in this situation,” she said, also stressing that the most important goal is for Brandes to get healthyd.

“I haven’t talked to a single person who has wished him ill will,” Peiterson said later. “We want him to get healthy. At the same time, we still need a president.”

Brandes acknowledged this is a “very difficult time” for WWCC, and that staff reductions and change is always so. He said he requested a professional development clause be added to his contract, and that an executive coach would be beneficial.

No contract for such is in place right now, he said.

Burt said that this hiring process has started, however, and that professional growth is important for everyone at WWCC, including Brandes.

“At the same time, we are very cognizant about added expenses,” Burt said.

The cost of a job coach will cancel out traveling elsewhere for professional development reasons, he said.

Looking ahead

The staff reduction — termination notices started going out Friday — is the largest in anyone’s memory including during the 2008-2009 recession, Rostollan, the faculty senate president, said.

There’s no question things needed to be what the group called “right sized” to match WWCC’s declining enrollment.

Such drops in student numbers are happening all over the nation, Vaughn, the transitional studies teacher, said.

But the layoffs come at a bad time and highlight officials’ reactive rather than proactive planning, she said

Class schedules are due just a week after layoff announcements.

“We’re planning for what we have now. It will be complete chaos for the students,” Vaughn said.

Peiterson said no one wants that, or for the school to fail.

“My college is being driven off the cliff, in my mind,” he said.

For his part, Brandes doesn’t see the school’s doors closing.

While things must be adjusted to student numbers, WWCC is still a national leader in student success, student completion and innovating programming, he said.

Also on the “pro” side is the new student recreation center going up — paid for by fees voted on by students to create a legacy project. And last year the community showed its support to WWCC with more than $1 million in scholarship donations, Brandes said.

“We are viable. We lead the state in corrections education — 40% of the state corrections education runs through WWCC.”

This past fall, the school received federal funds to increase student success. And the applied bachelor programs are growing faster than expected, he said.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 509-526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers education in the Walla Walla Valley. She also writes a column, Home Place, usually highlighting family life and slices of local life.