Walla Walla Community College is in a state of financial emergency, President Derek Brandes said Tuesday.

He is blaming low class enrollment and Washington state’s funding formula for community colleges that creates a $2.7 million budget deficit here for the 2019-2020 budget.

In an interview with the Union-Bulletin, Brandes said immediate reductions will happen to balance the budget and ensure long-term sustainability for the school.

Cuts include 16 staff positions: six classified, eight exempt and two faculty. Ten of those spots are already open through retirements and resignations, Brandes said.

The school’s total operating budget is $33,565,500; salaries use $20,342,832, or about 61%, and employee benefits add another $6,963,076.

Together, those numbers add up to $27,305,908, more than 81% of operating costs, college officials said.

Campus operations run a tab of $6,259,592 — 18.6% of the budget.

WWCC is also discontinuing its Medical Assisting classes for at least the coming year on both Walla Walla and Clarkston campuses, due to less than 40% capacity enrollment in the program, Brandes said.

Staff was being made aware of the cuts Tuesday, and students will be told throughout the week. Those who have already purchased materials and books needed for the program will be reimbursed, Brandes said.

Campuswide enrollment looks low overall for this year, he said, calling the drop significant. Much of that comes from a hot job economy that can steer people away from exploring higher education or registering for programs that promise considerably higher-than-minimum wages. That leaves programs such as medical assistant with fewer students, Brandes said.

In 2008, WWCC registered 6,670 students, he said.

“Last year it was 4,573 students.”

The number of staff needed to serve 2,000 fewer students is also a big drop, he said.

While the work and trade program cuts are more visible to the public, reductions are happening in academic departments, as well, Brandes said.

As predictions of an economic recession increase, that can mean more students for higher education everywhere.

“You hate to say that, you want the economy to be good,” he said. “But if you go back, historically the numbers are higher here during a recession.”

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. Over the summer, Brandes and board members analyzed revenue, expenses and long-term options, including declaring the financial emergency.

That move allows school officials to make and implement decisions to restore a solid financial footing for the community college, including streamlining the process for terminating employees.

One tool to gain balance will be assigning multiple duties to some WWCC employees, allowing the school to not refill some positions when they become vacant, Brandes said.

Another help is diversifying funding streams; the recent introduction of four-year degrees has paid off, and enrollment in programs such as criminal justice and human services has been healthy, the college president said.

This year, some classes may have fewer time slots for people to choose from; for example, a math class may only be offered three periods a day instead of five.

“We want to make it as least impactful on students as possible, within the financial realities we have,” Brandes said.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 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.