As the clock ticked closer to the 11th hour, staff, students and supporters gathered in Pendleton on Wednesday to rally against the proposed budget for Blue Mountain Community College.
The rally was supposed to take place immediately before the BMCC Board of Education was scheduled to pass a budget that includes significant job cuts, but the state’s public meeting advertising requirements meant the board had to move the vote to Monday.
Nevertheless, the rally attracted more than 100 people to the college’s Pendleton campus.
The crowd, many of them wearing blue-and-gold “Save BMCC” T-shirts, mingled, heard speeches from educators and union members from across the region, and listened to live music from The Retrenchments, a band name referencing the college’s terminology for layoffs.
College administrators said BMCC has a $2 million shortfall and needs to cut 10 full-time faculty positions and several more part-time jobs to make up the gap.
The faculty union rejects that premise, its members arguing that the college is prioritizing expenditures like a website redesign and hiring administrators over retaining staff who work most closely with students.
With several staff cuts focused on core academic subjects like English and math, staff said the college seems to be targeting its university transfer program.
Chris Early, a Umatilla High School teacher and a regional union official, said he recently heard an administrator say that students who attended BMCC so they could eventually transfer to a four-year school were “privileged.”
“You see my students and their families and the poverty that they live with day-after-day and year-after-year and generation-after-generation. And in spite of that, they make something out of nothing every day,” he said. “You look them in the eye and you tell them that they’re privileged.”
The crowd eventually moved indoors to attend Wednesday’s board meeting, where the board granted them a half hour to speak. In contrast to the fiery rhetoric in front of the building, the comments from the audience were more measured and personal. Multiple instructors told the board how much their classes meant to students, and how they often served as a mental health lifeline for students in turmoil.
English instructor Kai Russell said her department was being targeted for staffing cuts despite being popular with students.
“I have been here for 10 years,” she said. “I made my home here. My family settled here with me. I really don’t want to regret that decision.”
Sascha McKeon spent her first day as the president of the faculty union organizing the rally. She told the board that the union had collected more than 1,900 signatures from people who opposed the job cuts.
She also said the planned layoffs violated the union’s collective bargaining agreement with the college. The college said it’s making staff cuts to departments with low enrollment, but McKeon said the contract requires the college to prioritize layoffs based on seniority.
The other group affected by the college’s budget decisions — students — also joined the discussion.
After delivering his monthly report, Associated Student Government President Liam Coyle urged both sides to reach a compromise and show some transparency, adding that many students didn’t know what was going on and were losing confidence in what their education was going to look like next year.
Sarah Hardin told the board that she’s now attending the University of Idaho after graduating from BMCC last year. She said she was inspired to major in chemistry after taking a general chemistry course at the college, but now the instructor for that class is slated to be laid off.
“Over half the teachers that you’re cutting gave me the credits I needed to make a successful transfer so that I only have to go to this giant university for two years,” she said. “So that I can come back and I can serve our community.”
Union officials and the college administration will meet once more Friday in an attempt to reach a deal before the budget vote.
Both sides met throughout May to reach a compromise, but talks broke down before they could come to an agreement.
In an interview after the meeting, BMCC President Mark Browning said he’s hopeful the college can find an agreement with the union. But he said union representatives needed to bring new ideas to the table to make a deal possible.
Browning said the college’s status quo wasn’t working, with enrollment staying low even as COVID-19 restrictions have largely disappeared.
“We have to do and look at things differently,” he said. “We also know that in some of the core areas that we’ve got, we simply have too many instructors for the number of students we have.”
Browning dismissed the union’s arguments about breaking the collective bargaining agreement, saying that it gave him the flexibility to make cuts based on enrollment data. But he also critiqued the document, saying it was too “restrictive” and overly favorable to the faculty.
Regardless of whether the union and its college can strike a last-minute deal, Browning said the board will vote to adopt the budget as presented Monday.