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Pandemic forces budget cuts at Walla Walla Community College

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WWCC

Walla Walla Community College’s main building

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Walla Walla Community College to shave an additional $3.1 million off its budget for the 2020-21 school year.

To achieve that, seven positions have been eliminated and another eight will remain vacant for a total of 15 affected positions, according to information from the college.

Two of the employees laid off were faculty members.

The new proposed budget still needs approval from the board of trustees. It is being presented today and will be voted on June 24.

Walla Walla Community College President Chad Hickox says the cuts were solely caused by the coronavirus.

“We had a balanced budget that was on its way to be presented to the board,” Hickox said this morning. “Then, we got word from the state that because of the virus, tax revenue collection was down. So we were asked to anticipate a decrease in our state funding. So that is entirely responsible for the budget problem we’re having right now.”

The college and other state agencies were told to plan for a 15% cut. With 80% of the community college budget dedicated to personnel, Hickox said making up that money without cuts to staffing wasn’t possible.

In addition to layoffs, all full-time employees of the school will have days reduced from their contracts. These furloughs are for between 10 and 12 days over the course of the year.

Hickox said it is important the budget not rely on reserves and instead be fully balanced based on expected revenue.

Faculty union President Jim Peitersen said he believes the cuts were handled fairly by Hickox’s administration.

“(Hickox) has been pretty fair and honest with us,” Peitersen said. “While the cuts are tough, we understand that we have to make the institution healthy moving forward.”

Peitersen said one concern of union members is that in two rounds of budget cuts under Hickox so far, no senior administrator has been laid off.

“That’s something some of my members aren’t comfortable with,” Peitersen said. “We’d like to see him reconfigure his administration some.”

Hickox said students were considered with every cut the school made.

“Our guiding principle was we wanted to preserve our ability to meet our mission and serve students,” he said. “Every cut we considered making needed to take that into account … We also wanted to minimize the impact on employees to the greatest extent possible.”

While he does expect some more major changes in the form of a college realignment will be needed down the road, Hickox said there was not enough time do this the right way this year. He says such a plan will require input from people from every department and level of the college.

Hickox also hopes the school will be able to find some positives in this situation. He said the school is able to add programs and services and he hopes to attract some new students.

Oddly, the pandemic could actually help with this.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that many recent high school graduates who were planning on attending a four-year university this fall are now seeking other options.

Students could be reluctant to leave home to attend a university for health-related and financial issues. Leaders at Walla Walla Community College say starting school at the local level could ease these concerns without delaying educational advancement.

“We are well-poised to serve our community, even now, and I would argue, especially now,” said Melissa Rodriguez, WWCC’s director of outreach. “If staying closer to home this fall makes more sense to you and your family, you can earn credits through WWCC that can be transferred to a four-year college or university.”

Hickox said the ability to offer a viable option to such students is a positive.

Because of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, commonly referred to as CARES, the school is also offering additional financial aid to qualifying students.

On May 6, WWCC was granted just under $2.5 million from the relief package. Leaders allocated 50% of the funding to students in the form of emergency financial aid.

According to a document on the WWCC website, as of June 1, the college has awarded $146,250 of emergency financial aid grants to 182 students.

Rodriguez said students who opt to begin their educations at WWCC shouldn’t feel like they are forever giving up going to a university.

“It doesn’t even have to be (for a full two years),” Rodriguez said. “If they find that their school opens up or that their financial situation is rectified, they can take whatever credits they have earned with us with them. We make sure that is the case.”

Both Hickox and Rodriguez also said the school is a good fit for people who are out of work due to COVID-19 and wish to learn a new skill.

“Folks in our community who have felt the impacts of the pandemic on their employment could come to us to learn,” Rodriguez said.

She said more than 100 certificate and degree options are available, including Associate of Arts and Associate in Applied Sciences, as well as shorter-term certificates in subjects ranging from accounting to welding technology.

“At a university, they don’t offer the verity of workforce programs we have,” Hickox said. “So, if you are interested in getting back into the workforce in a different field, or re-skilling or up-skilling, then a community college is your best choice. We are the ones who do that. We are experts at it. We have been doing it for decades.”

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Jeremy Burnham can be reached at jeremyburnham@wwub.com or 509-551-8896.

Reporter

Jeremy Burnham covers education and Columbia County for the Union-Bulletin. He is a recent graduate of Eastern Washington University, where he studied journalism, and is an Eastern Eagle fanatic.