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MJC students, faculty cry foul with cuts

MJC students, faculty cry foul with cuts

Modesto Junior College students hold up a sign outside of Wednesday's Yosemite Community College District Board of Trustees meeting.


POSTED March 11, 2011 10:37 p.m.

After four hours of passionate public comment, with hundreds of students, faculty and community leaders pleading for programs to be saved, the Yosemite Community College District Board of Trustees on Wednesday unanimously voted to send pink slips to 55 employees and eliminate entire programs from Modesto Junior College.

“On behalf of the entire student body, I am very disgusted by your actions,” said MJC Student Body President Adam Webber.

The decision will slash mass communications – television, radio and journalism – culinary arts, dental assisting, architecture, engineering, communication graphics, industrial technology, French, German and Italian. It will also remove the Wawona Child Care Center, the West Campus library, a service to translate books into Braille for the blind, and would dismantle the school of Arts, Humanities and Communication, splitting remaining programs into other schools.

“It was extremely difficult to make staff reductions that affect the lives of individuals, and I accept this with a heavy heart,” said YCCD Trustee Abe Rojas, whose district includes Turlock. “... But this may not be the last reduction the future holds for our district.”

 

Cut distribution questioned

The $8 million in cuts adopted Wednesday amount to 16 percent of MJC’s $51 million general fund budget – a budget which has already seen $12 million cut in the past two years without layoffs. About 96 percent of that general fund is currently allocated to salary and benefits, creating an unsustainable budget and forcing the elimination of faculty, Trustee Anne DeMartini said.

While most speakers agreed that some cuts had to occur, many took issue with how the cuts were doled out.

Some programs were eliminated due to low student success rates – an incentive for professors to dumb down courses or pass undeserving students, instructors said. Others were cut due to low graduation rates – not considering those who transfer away or obtain employment before graduation. And some were eliminated due to a supposed lack of jobs in the field – like Journalism, TV and industrial technology, despite many impassioned speakers saying there were, indeed, jobs to be had in these areas.

“Honestly, California is the media Mecca of the world,” said Carol Lancaster Mingus, MJC TV and Film instructor. “There are jobs here. There are jobs.”

Some speakers questioned the statistics quoted in the budget reduction recommendation, pointing out inaccuracies, flaws and outdated data. Many programs cited year-plus waiting lists filled of hopeful students, unconsidered in the reduction proposal.

Others questioned if cuts would truly save the projected amount of money. Eliminating architecture and engineering, one professor said, would save nothing if 75 students left MJC as a result. More students than that are currently enrolled in the program, he said.

And many programs on the chopping block, including TV, film and radio, just received new, multi-million dollar buildings and equipment thanks to Measure E bond money, which will now go unused. Others, like dental assisting, have new facilities under construction, whose fate is now up in the air.

Dental assisting students railed trustees for eliminating one of only 17 accredited dental assisting programs in State of California, and the only one within 100 miles. The cut came without the school asking local dentists for support. Many such dentists saying Wednesday night they would help if asked.

And countless speakers choked out messages between sobs, telling how eliminating aid for disabled students, cutting child care or eliminating a program in the middle of a student’s study could force them out of MJC.

“I'm not a number, I’m not a statistic, I'm not an acceptable loss on your budget line,” said Ryan Cohen, MJC film student. “Cutting the mass communications department will cause the college to fail the very students it's supposed to support.”

 

Speakers frequently cut off

Speakers continually struggled to make their points in the allotted time. An initial, two-hour comment period offered speakers two minutes each to speak. With lines of those hoping to speak still stretching out the MJC Auditorium into the lobby on each side of the building, the trustees begrudgingly granted a further half-hour of comment. That again put no dent in the lines, and the remaining 50-plus speakers were granted just a minute to speak.

All this came despite printed notice on the trustees’ agenda that speakers would have five minutes to comment, and an earlier, e-mailed notice that speakers would have three minutes to speak. And constituent groups, including the MJC academic senates and unions, were not allowed to address the board outside of the allotted one-or-two minute speaking period.

 “Madam chair, that is in violation of the Brown Act,” Webber shouted at the announcement of the one-minute speaking time. “You have people with children who have waited in line for three hours; you have veterans who have waited in line for three hours. You can honor them by letting them speak.”

The board did not respond to Webber’s statements.

 

Worst-case cuts too harsh, speakers say

The $8 million figure MJC achieved budget reductions was entirely based on a worst-case scenario, which drew the ire of speakers as an excessive cut.

The reductions assume voters will not pass an extension of the current half-cent sales tax expected to go before voters in June, which could result in “significantly less” funds needing to be cut. And the college has not attempted to negotiate salary or benefit reductions with employees, which could have saved positions and programs.

“It doesn't matter to them if academic careers are ruined and students’ careers are short-circuited,” said Laura Paull, MJC journalism instructor. “... This is a frightened response to alarmist politics.”

But the district said cutting based on those possibilities was necessary, as all pink slips had to be handed out by March 15. Additionally, the district said revoking any cuts was unlikely, as any savings from negotiations or extended taxes could be taken up with other factors not included in the proposed budget, including $550,000 in step and column pay increases, a “significant increase” in benefit costs, and increasing utility costs – some attributed to new, Measure-E funded buildings under construction. Also unaccounted for are increased pension costs, possible changes in state policy, and accrued vacation and compensatory time which must be paid to employees laid off.

 “We have to plan for the worst case scenario,” Trustee chair Linda Flores said. “These are very difficult times.”

Trustees said they had few options but to make the suggested cuts. But students and faculty, many of whom felt cut out of the decision-making process, said they weren’t given enough time to review the budget.

“The fact is, nobody wants these program cuts, and as a trustee said, we've received no viable alternatives to this,” said Trustee Tom Hallinan.

 “In two weeks?” shouted one student.

 “In two minutes?” shouted another.

MJC Academic Senate Chair Mike Adams said the board was presented with alternatives, which went unconsidered.

 

Potential program return not on table; legal action threatened

YCCD Faculty Representative Sam Pierstorff offered an 11th-hour compromise to the board, that language be added to the resolution stating that deans and administrators would work to determine when funding might allow the eliminated programs to return.

 “It costs nothing to add this amendment, but it adds hope to the hopeless,” Pierstorff said.

The Board of Trustees did not discuss his proposed amendment, or take any action on it.

 “I feel disappointed and sad, and that I've been marginalized and dismissed,” Pierstorff said after their non-action. “It hurts personally and professionally.”

Pierstorff also questioned why most trustees read pre-written statements shortly before making cuts, as though the four hours of comment mattered little to trustees, stating “it feels like many of those statements were made earlier than tonight.”

Adams said he hopes the Academic Senate can work with the trustees in the 90 days to come, during which time the pink slips could yet be rescinded. And if a solution isn’t reached during that time, the issue could be headed to court, Adams said, quoting legal case law, due to the district’s shoddy reasoning in cutting programs.

“I think we're in legal trouble folks,” Adams said. “I think if we go forward with the layoffs under these circumstances we may have to undo it.”

To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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