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Uneasy Negotiations

news1-1Cabrillo support staff reports feeling the brunt of budget cuts

Luz Martinez says she sees lives instead of paperwork when she processes academic transcripts for transferring Cabrillo College students. With four sons in college, she knows how crucial timely delivery of these documents to universities from community colleges can be.

“If the paperwork doesn't get out to places like UC Berkeley and San Jose State in time, they could have their enrollment terminated,” says Martinez, who works in the school’s admissions department. “I don't want to jeopardize their future, but our office has already been reduced from 12 to 10 workers and it's getting harder and harder.”

Admissions is just one sector of the campus coping with the latest round of difficult budget cuts, which have become a familiar burden since 2008. During these four years, the school's general fund budget was trimmed from more than $60 million to less than $56 million. This year it’s shooting for a figure of $54 million even after using $2.6 million from reserve funds. This tactic has been used several times already to varying extents, causing deficits to reappear the following year.

About 400 class sections were deleted from course catalogs during this period, prompting Cabrillo President Brian King to say during at least one 2011 College Planning Council meeting that further class cuts could trigger the loss of the school’s accreditation.

With class cuts now nearly off the table entirely, members of the Cabrillo Classified Employees Union (CCEU) are feeling like they are alone in the cross hairs of the budget scalpel. Faculty and the CCEU negotiate contracts in separate talks with the administration, and recently a feeling of division has set in, according to financial aid worker Maria Zamudio.

“It used to be that the faculty and classified workers negotiated deals on their own but talked openly to reach deals we were all comfortable with,” she says. “That climate has been changing in the last four years.”

She points to a recent proposal that CCEU workers pitch in 7 percent of their salary to their Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) plan and cover any increases to their medical benefits indefinitely. They currently pay 0 percent—a deal they reached in a previous year for foregoing raises.

A CCEU representative who asked to remain anonymous says he is not as upset about the dollar amount as he is that it is a harsher deal than the administration has offered in concessions.

Administrators have offered to pay 1 percent of their salary to PERS and cover 50 percent of future medical insurance hikes for themselves.

“If what the administration is offering were proposed to us, this [part of the negotiations] would be done,”  the CCEU representative says.

The administration's concessions proposal to the board also gives them the right to renegotiate the terms of their PERS and medical expenses when revenues tick upward. The offer the CCEU says they received calls for them to take on these increases indefinitely.

news1-2Cabrillo College financial aid advisor Lynn Leslie helps a student at the financial aid department, one of the many departments impacted by budget cuts.The CCEU representative says the tone and method of negotiations has become almost as big an issue as the specifics of the deals being formed. Last spring, the administration began sending out an email update called “Negotiation News” to make the process more transparent at the request of trustees. The updates, however, outlined only the talks regarding the CCEU's fate, and included no information on the faculty union's negotiations or administration’s own belt-tightening plan.

CCEU members requested these emails not be sent out unless the updates pertained to all sectors of the campus staff. Elimination of faculty and class sections is expected to be a marginal ingredient in the at least $2 million that must be cut. Although some class sections are on the table for possible elimination, very few can be cut before offering complete degrees or properly preparing students for transferring will be possible, according to King in past College Planning Council meetings.

Hyper-partisan politics in Sacramento makes matters worse for staff and administrators working out the business aspect. Because Cabrillo's fiscal year begins July 1 each year, they count on legislators to solidify a state budget before then to make their planning process possible. For the past four years the stalemate in the capitol has dragged on into August or beyond, making a moving target out of any numbers Cabrillo Vice President of Administrative Services Victoria Lewis has to work with.

The uncertainty leads employees to feel like their jobs and livelihoods are moving targets, also, says Martinez.

“The whole campus is going through this,” says Martinez. “The administration just says there is a budget shortage, but they don't say where they are going to make the reductions.” It will take even longer for the smoke to clear on the budget this year no matter what agreements are reached. The success or failure of Gov. Jerry Brown's tax measures on the November ballot could swing Cabrillo’s $4.6 million figure widely in either direction.

That figure is, however, all they have to go on for the time being. The plan right now is to use $2.6 million from operating reserves, leaving $2 million to be made in cuts.

Cabrillo Director of Marketing and Communications Kristin Fabos says King's office is hesitant to release specifics about current negotiations because they have been accused of “negotiating in public in the past.”

“PERS is being discussed because what the administration is looking for is something that addresses both this year and the long-term structural deficit,” Fabos says.

She says the Negotiations News emails were halted in May, and will not be distributed again until they contain information about all employee groups.

She adds that the benefits concessions being proposed to the CCEU are only in the conversation because no other group at the school has full PERS coverage.

The CCEU representative says they received this deal in exchange for not receiving raises during a different negotiation. However, some developments in the past year make this new bargaining chip held by the administration especially troubling to him.

“Last year the bookstore employees took a 20 percent pay cut because the store is now closed on Fridays,” says the representative. “With the 7 percent to PERS and paying for medical benefit increases, that is about a 30 percent pay cut.”

He is concerned about retaining the staff they have now: if they don't have enough to live on from their Cabrillo job, he says employees may have to seek outside work to survive in the area.

“If you are working at 80 percent it is hard to find more work and stay at your current job,” he says.

Proposals such as closing offices on non-class days are also a huge concern to Zamudio. She points out that although the financial aid system will be entirely online within a couple of months, human staff are still needed in the department. She hopes that the online expansion will not be seen as an invitation to cut staff further.

There are now three people available at the Aptos campus financial aid desk to help thousands of students through the process. The Watsonville campus has one financial aid employee.

“We have more students applying for financial aid than ever before,” says Zamudio. “Even the ones who are tech savvy want to talk with a human, and we have to review all the electronic files which almost [always] need some minor corrections.”

These are the type of services CCEU members feel are being overlooked. Sources GT spoke with say they want the community to know that they are more than janitors and IT workers—that they are also the lab aids who set up experiments, tutors in the math and writing labs, and the people who make sure the class schedules don't require anyone to be in two places at once.

One CCEU member, who is worried about the future viability of the college, says the “losses at this point are so significant that the institution is changing in ways we may never recover from.”

Photos: Keana Parker

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