Peralta Budget Cuts Services, Preserves Raises

The community college district's approach to belt-tightening has mobilized a movement among students, staff, and faculty.

Three hours into October’s Peralta Community College District board
of trustees meeting, the budget battle got nasty. Darnice Davis, a
Laney College student senator, had taken to the mic to protest severe
spending cuts. Addressing comments made by multi-degreed trustee and
one-time Merritt College student Marcie Hodge, freshman Davis suggested
that it was easy for someone with a completed education to “really just
deal” with catastrophic cutbacks to college funding. Hodge leaned
forward and snapped, “Don’t speak to what you don’t know. I’m still in
school.” She then proceeded to announce — away from her
microphone but not quite far enough to escape the sound system —
that she was itching to take Davis outside and give her “the
facts.”

When Peralta’s board votes to adopt its bleak budget on December 15,
Davis will be back for the fight. “We’re going to go down to the board
meeting as a group and tell them that it’s not okay to make education a
privilege and not a right,” Davis said. One of an energized and angry
group of students, faculty, and staff who have been holding speak-outs,
potlucks, and teach-ins across the four Peralta schools, Davis said she
is now “campaigning tirelessly” to organize a rally and march to the
meeting she says could determine her future.

The proposed spending plan, which Peralta chief financial officer
Tom Smith has called “probably the most difficult budget I’ve had to
put together in my entire career,” hacks at least $5 million from
Peralta’s budget, halving funding for counseling, various student
services, and programs serving an array of disabled populations, single
parents, and economically and educationally disadvantaged students.
With its $3 million reduction in funding for part-time faculty in a
district where two-thirds of all instructors are adjuncts, the budget
effectively slashes 400 class sections and the staff who would teach
them. Four research positions at Peralta have been eliminated, and the
threat of layoffs looms over critical non-instructional staff.

While the scope of the budget shortfall — part of a $935
million cut in community-college funding across the state — is
largely beyond its control, Peralta’s response has inspired suspicion
among many students and staff. By cutting service staff while proposing
an unexplained increase of at least $570,000 in administrative salaries
for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, and by asking for the lowest-paid
employees to take furloughs while not offering similar management
concessions, the district has failed to prioritize students in a time
of crisis, critics say.

“While they’re cutting programs and cutting hundreds of class
sections,” Davis said, “they’re giving administrators like the
chancellor raises — annual raises.”

Indeed, the 57 unauthorized administrative pay raises revealed
earlier this year by the Bay Area News Group have never been rolled
back. This doesn’t sit right with teacher’s union president Debra
Weintraub, who believes that cutting from those coffers is an important
part of setting priorities straight. “I’m not saying that
administrators in our district at some point might not deserve a raise,
but do you make it a priority during a budget crisis to give yourself
raises?” she said. “Or do you look and say this is one more year we
have to try and hold out?”

Those raises averaged between 5 and 8 percent, with some reaching as
high as 16 percent. The most recent available data, generated before
the pay hikes, puts the average manager’s salary in the district at
around $130,000.

Although cutting from the top wouldn’t come close to filling the
devastating shortfall in state funding — a loss Peralta
approximates at $13 million, although the Community College League of
California estimates the net loss for the district as less than $8
million — it could help soften the blow to students. And it might
even help temper the distrust that was on display at the most recent
board meeting, when teachers, staff, and students spoke out in anger
that the text of the budget had been dropped on them with only about 36
hours notice. Originally scheduled for a November 10 vote, the
difficult and occasionally opaque 123-page document raised enough ire
that the board agreed to postpone the vote for a month. Smith himself
admitted that the budget was riddled with errors.

David Reed, an outreach specialist in Laney’s office of student
services, is among the sixteen staffers who have received layoff
notices since October’s board meeting. And though he’s one of the lucky
ones who since have been given a wobbly reprieve thanks partly to
federal stimulus funds, he suspects the axe is still coming for him and
other colleagues.

“Where are the cuts coming?” he asked. “To the people who serve
students directly. These are offices that are absolutely at bare
minimum. Some of these are one-person offices. So when you say ‘lay one
person off,’ if you’re talking about the tutoring coordinator, that
is the office. There isn’t anyone else.” Peralta’s approach will
greatly reduce access to fundamentals like counseling and financial
aid, he said.

In the process, Peralta critics complain, the district is violating
its own declared mission to “make decisions with respect to how they
will support student and community success.”

It’s this approach to the statewide budget crisis that has mobilized
a movement.

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