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.