Administrators at Blue Mountain Community College in eastern Oregon say they need to close at least one academic program and lay off faculty because of a drop in enrollment. The faculty union says the cuts are unnecessary, and the result of poor decision-making. We’ll hear from BMCC President Mark Browning and Pete Hernberg, president of the Blue Mountain Faculty Association and a math and computer science instructor at BMCC.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Administrators at Blue Mountain Community College in Eastern Oregon say they need to close at least one academic program and lay off faculty because of a drop in enrollment. The faculty union says the cuts are unnecessary and the result of poor decision making. Last week negotiations between the two sides broke down. Last night, the budget committee, which is a subset of the community colleges overall Board of Education voted to move forward with the proposal. For more on the situation, I’m joined now by Blue Mountain Community College President Mark Browning and Pete Hernberg. He is a math and computer science instructor at the college and the president of the Union, the Blue Mountain Faculty Association. Welcome to you both.
Mark Browning: Thank you very much, Dave.
Pete Hernberg: Thanks for having me, Dave.
Dave Miller: Mark Browning, I want to start with the shortfall itself because there is some disagreement even about this and it seems like it’s an important place to start. So how big is it right now?
Mark Browning: Dave, when we started out the initial budgeting work for this year, for the 2022-23 fiscal year budget, between what we were going to be short coming out of this year and then what we need to do in order to move forward proactively, we were $2.096, so just under $2.1 million dollars short. Out of that, on the personnel side, we were $1.3 million short. That’s where we had to make up the gap.
Dave Miller: Because the majority of this is in personnel and in salaries.
Mark Browning: It is, as an educational entity, it’s very similar to K-12. The bulk of our budget is made up of personnel costs.
Dave Miller: What are the reasons for this shortfall?
Mark Browning: We’ve got declining enrollment Dave. Over the last 10-11 years, unfortunately we’re about 65% down in enrollment. So that’s, we’re less than half the size we were 10 years ago. We just don’t have the students coming here like we have in the past, there’s a number of reasons for it and that’s probably topics for three or four of your future programs. But at the bottom line, we just don’t have enough enrollment to support the amount of overhead that we have.
Dave Miller: But the 65%, that’s what you said over 10 years. But what about just from last year or the current year to projections for the coming year?
Mark Browning: So in the last, let’s break it down by five years. In the last five years, we’re down 42% and we, we’re actually not too bad this year, but we’re, we are predicting to be down about another 3% next year. The understanding and an essential part of community colleges is that when the economy in general is doing well, unemployment is low, wages are up, that’s not a good time for us. We typically suffered downward enrollment during those times and that certainly has been the case here. If you, if you look at coming out of the great recession, that’s where a lot of our enrollment went. They went to work. That’s what we’re seeing now and that’s going to continue to be the case.
Dave Miller: Pete Hernberg, you have argued that there isn’t a budget problem. What do you mean?
Pete Hernberg: What I mean, Dave, is that we received some great news in the last few weeks, which is that the enrollment for this year is actually up. That’s one of the three legs of the budget stool. The other leg is state funding. That’s up. The final leg is property taxes. That’s up as well. So there is a budget crisis and the crisis has been created by the college administration, and that’s by pursuing these extraordinary, unnecessary and unjustified cuts. It’s endangered the future of this college. We don’t know if we’re going to be able to serve the students we have and the students who might come here in the coming year. And so there isn’t a budget crisis right now. But if the college proceeds with its proposed cuts, which is 10 full time faculty and approximately two dozen part time faculty that the college has refused to acknowledge or even notify, we believe that if they proceed with these cuts, what we’ll see next year is a dramatic decline in enrollment, a dramatic decline in revenue and an inability to serve our students and keep our promises.
Dave Miller: Mark Browning, do you disagree with the basic numbers that Pete Hernberg just put forward, that the college actually is going to have next year more money in property taxes, more money from the state and more money from students?
Mark Browning: I disagree with the totality of it because while individually those claims may have merit, collectively, they do not cover the gap that we have. We have increased cost in personnel every year because of contractual obligations to Pete and his faculty that get a step in the cost of living every year, increased costs that go with the operation. We’re up, we have over $100,000 in new costs just this year in insurance premiums for unemployment insurance, we have increased cost for property and casualty insurance, fuel is up, so that the cost of the institution continued to rise. One of the biggest disconnects I think we have, Dave, is that whatever you and I pay for tuition for a student or for ourselves does not cover the full cost of instruction. It takes the totality of it all because it’s more than just the faculty. It is all the student support services and everything else that goes with it. I’m watching a grounds crew right now trying to repair a sign out front. We have to pay for all of those people, so while individually, some of those areas may see some slight increases and, on enrollment, that’s still not a firm number. It will take into the summer before the state has the audit on the numbers so that we know that that’s actually the case or not. I’m thrilled that we’re even this close, but I think to be responsible and this is the point that you need to understand, is that we know traditionally where this is headed. In a hot economy, we are going to be down.
Dave Miller: Pete Hernberg, the sense I get is that you’re saying there’s enough money here or there will be enough money coming in, we just have to use it wisely and it’s most unwise to cut faculty positions. So what are you saying that the proposed budget is unwisely putting other money towards?
Pete Hernberg: Thank you, Dave. What we see in this budget are not cuts of necessity, but cuts of discretion. So we see that the college is reallocating about $1.2 million, that funds educational offerings in order to increase the materials and services budget and hire two new administrators. So what we see is not a decline in the budget, but a reallocation of priorities. So what we are seeing in the budget is a $100,000 increase in travel spending, $165,000 increase in the supply budget, a $116,000 budgeted for equipment and furniture, $265,000 to hire those two new administrators. What we see is the college choosing to allocate resources away from educational offerings that our students and communities depend on and into its own internal matters, hiring new administrators and not keeping our promises to the students.
Dave Miller: Mark Browning, obviously you want to jump in. And now is your chance.
Mark Browning: Let’s, let’s clarify some things, Dave, thanks. One of the earliest meetings I had with Pete back in September when we first came to town. Pete was very forthcoming and gracious in meeting with me and expressing the need for marketing. So two years ago the college eliminated the marketing communications department. We’ve had no one with the responsibility to be out telling our story to attract new students. These two new positions that he talks of are not administrators. They are replacement of positions that were previously in the budget. If a person is a salaried person, an exempt person, that does not automatically make them an administrator and that is misleading. There are two positions proposed in the budget, one for a marketing person, which I think everyone on campus agrees is sorely needed to help grow enrollment. The other is for an institutional research person for our own data. We currently have to contract out with another college to manage our own student information data. It doesn’t work as well as it should and they are crucial positions that are needed to be able to move the college forward.
Dave Miller: Let me, let me actually, let me, let me go back then to Pete Hernberg. Are you arguing that if you had to choose, and it seems like that this is not a hypothetical, it’s either hire these people or hire these people the way this debate is at least being set up right now. Would you rather have this data person and someone to do marketing and communications to attract more students or to faculty?
Pete Hernberg: Dave, I’m not sure that I accept the premise of that question. What happened yesterday, I met a student at an advising event. I’ll call him Juan and Juan’s working on his criminal justice degree. He’s hoping to have a career in federal immigration law enforcement. At this advising event where we’re helping students get their classes for the summer and fall, I didn’t know what to tell this student because the college has said that the criminal justice program is going away, that students don’t need this program. And so what the law requires is that the college do a teach out, that it find alternative classes for these students or send them to another institution to complete their degrees. The college has done none of this required work. And so I really can’t tell this student what he’s going to do for classes next fall. And because of that, I don’t think it matters very much whether or not we have a marketing person at the college, if we can’t even answer our own students’ questions about what classes they can take or whether they’re program is going to be there for them in the fall.
Dave Miller: How did you decide which individual positions in which departments and which programs as a whole should be on the chopping block?
Mark Browning: I’ll get to that. I want to go back to Pete’s allegation that we haven’t done what’s required. Pete knows very well that there is a process and a timeline that has to go, each piece by piece. We are required to teach out any program that we have, if it has current students registered in it with that as their major. So for this student, they certainly would have the opportunity to finish out the program and it would be taught out. We cannot jump ahead because of all the agreements that are in place and say that right now, because we haven’t come to an agreement on the contract and the retrenchments or the layoffs. So it’s disingenuous to say that we have not done our part there. We know that every part has to come in its place and in its proper place in the processes. Pete really didn’t even answer the question, but let’s get on to the programs that we chose. The data that we used is strictly on enrollment, for example, if you’re looking at the enrollment decline over the last five years, five years ago, we had five full time faculty teaching both math and English, but we’re down 42% in that five years. But we still have those same five positions. Sound, responsible, fiduciary practices of public dollars will tell you that you need to reduce the number of people that you have doing the same amount of work. For 80%, we have five. We can certainly do that with four and we have that responsibility to these students who are borrowing the money and to you and I as taxpayers who are paying substantial property taxes and income taxes to the state.
Dave Miller: Mark, I want to, I want to move, our time is limited, but my understanding is that last week in negotiations, you were prepared during negotiations, to accept some of the union’s requests and in return to only cut two faculty positions. What are you pushing for now in terms of faculty cuts? Because if I understand yesterday’s budget board meeting, what they moved forward to the full board was something more like 10 faculty positions. So where does it actually stand right now?
Mark Browning: We’re still working through that as an administration. We were willing to go to two, even though we were very clear that we didn’t think some of the offerings that the union had put forth really penciled out to the degree that they said. Now I want to give them credit. There were a couple of really good ideas in there and we sat down the day after they walked away from the table and pushed back and said, you know what, we’re done. We got together as administration the next morning and said, you know what? They had a couple of good ideas here, what if we did this and now we could do this and we’re working this around. The number is not solid yet because we still have to go through the process of notification and for the board to actually authorize the number of retrenchments or layoffs and then adopt that into the budget. So while I can’t give you a firm number, Dave, I know it will be less than 10. But I was really disappointed last week when we were so close and it just was really disappointing because a lot of people have worked really hard.
Dave Miller: Pete Hernberg, as Mark Browning noted, your union, you walked away from negotiations when the college had agreed to two faculty layoffs as opposed to 10. Why is that?
Pete Hernberg: Well, Dave, we had offered extraordinary concessions on salary. Probably, if I’m being honest with you, I shouldn’t say this, but probably too much. The better part of $1 million dollars in salary concessions and we offered four separate concessions. And what we asked was just one thing in return, was that there not be layoffs, that this plan to lay off faculty be abandoned and that included four faculty members taking an early retirement and one faculty member having an early, having an internal transfer. And so, that’s five faculty members. And if two more are laid off, that’s seven lost faculty members. So those losses would have been quite grievous and we’re beyond what we’re able, we’re willing to consider. We’re always willing to continue that conversation, but reaching an agreement to avert layoffs is an absolute necessity for us. I can’t see any other way. I do want to respond to something Mark Browning said about basing these layoffs on enrollment. It’s absolutely not the case. We have, in the list of layoffs, the highest enrolled faculty member in the entire college. And so when it’s claimed that these are based on enrollment, that’s not at all true. These cuts are arbitrary and they are discretionary. It’s the programs and people that the administrators wanted to cut, not those that were dictated by the numbers.
Mark Browning: Dave, real quickly, I know you’re up against time. It’s important to note that some of the positions that would have been retired came with incentives that were proposed by the union. We’re under an obligation to offer that to everybody across campus. So that includes our classified employees and our exempt salaried employees. There was no consideration or acknowledgement that that’s an issue for the administration, for those costs to be absorbed. Even with that, we continue to go down that road in the spirit of a settlement. Back to Mr. Hernberg’s comment about arbitrary and discretionary, that is the role of the administration. It is up to the administration to administer the available funds to the greatest degree possible, that this college moves forward and and that’s I think where our disconnect is at, Dave, is that we have a vision for where we’re going, to really move the mission of Blue Mountain forward in a more balanced and comprehensive way, to incorporate all aspects of education. We’ve been very focused on transfer and it’s been very successful and we’ll continue to do that. But we have industries here that need skilled workers right now and they need training. We need to be able to concentrate on that and we need to be able to do that in a more expeditious manner that this current past practice and budget certainly just does not allow us. The budget and personnel alone has gone from 15 million to a peak of 21 million, now back down to 18. While enrollment has been down 65%. We have to make some adjustments. The math does not add up.
Dave Miller: Mark Browning, you were right about the clock. I am up against it now. We’ve got to say goodbye. Mark Browning and Pete Hernberg, thanks very much. Mark Browning is the president of Blue Mountain Community College. Pete Hernberg is the president of the Blue Mountain Faculty Association, the Union for the college. He is a math and computer science instructor there.
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