After hearing opposition to proposed budgets that would result in 11 layoffs and the elimination of 13.5 other positions through retirement and attrition, the Northwest College Board of Trustees …
After hearing opposition to proposed budgets that would result in 11 layoffs and the elimination of 13.5 other positions through retirement and attrition, the Northwest College Board of Trustees voted to delay parts of the plan.
The planned staffing reductions come as part of efforts to address a $2.6 million shortfall, arising from diminished state support. It’s a situation impacting all community colleges across the state, as Gov. Mark Gordon institutes 15% cuts across all departments.
The budget reduction recommendations were presented at the board’s regular Jan. 11 meeting, but the board had delayed a vote on the measures until Thursday’s special meeting, to give board members time to receive and consider public feedback. More than 70 people submitted online comments and 10 people opposing the personnel cuts spoke during the citizens’ open forum.
While acknowledging they’ll likely make the same decisions later, NWC trustees decided to wait on the personnel cuts to reassure the public that all alternatives had been considered.
The board also passed a resolution crafted by the Wyoming Community College Commission. The resolution outlined cuts and increases to tuition over the past decade, and urged the governor and Legislature to increase taxes and funding to support the colleges.
All of the speakers during the citizen’s public forum raised concerns about the cuts being made and their far-reaching impacts. None of those who spoke proposed other means to raise revenues or suggested how the college could otherwise close the budget shortfalls.
Rachel Hanan, associate professor of English, said she was frustrated when community members expressed their frustration with the budget cuts but then opposed tax proposals that would prevent them.
Harriet Bloom-Wilson, Northwest College professor emerita of French and former Intercultural Programs director, raised concerns that the personnel cuts were “inordinately” heavily weighted toward faculty. She said this would undermine the quality of the college’s instruction.
Sandy Feyhl, a retired faculty member who worked in the education department, discussed the high workload she faced when she taught at NWC. One open position is among those proposed for elimination, and Feyhl argued that would require one faculty member to handle the entire department, which is also involved in student advising.
Jeremy Johnston, another former NWC faculty member, expressed sympathy for the challenge the board faces. However, he said cuts over the past years, including the latest proposals, were reducing the ratio between students and faculty. He proposed more even cuts to all departments.
“The faculty is the quickest-shrinking group, which I think is really unfair,” Johnston said.
One of the filled positions in the English department is recommended for elimination through retirement. However, Jennifer Dare, associate professor of English, argued that, while the department doesn’t have a lot of majors at NWC, its courses are part of just about every curriculum at the school.
She said composition classes require too much one-on-one instruction for higher student-teacher ratios.
“We’re not just cutting to the bone, we’re cutting off the bones,” Dare said, referring to all the proposed faculty cuts.
Mary Ellen Ibarra-Robinson, who taught at NWC for 33 years, said the cuts would make it hard for the college to distinguish itself and attract students.
Amy McKinney, associate professor of history, requested the board delay the vote in order to show the community that their concerns were being heard — especially considering the over 70 submitted comments the board received prior to Thursday’s meeting.
Beyond those who came in person, Thursday’s special meeting at times had over 80 participants online.
Michael Gundlach, NWC mathematics instructor, commended Interim President Lisa Watson’s initiative in seeking feedback from the faculty on the budget cuts. However, Gundlach warned there was a sense within the community that the college board wasn’t welcoming feedback — which he said may have been unintentional.
The board followed the citizens’ open forum with a discussion that lasted nearly two hours. The board has known for some time that severe cuts would need to be made to balance the budget for the 2022 fiscal year. After recounting the long hours spent over the past few months working on the proposed reductions, Trustee Carolyn Danko suggested splitting the recommendations into two motions: one for non-personnel cuts and a second for the cuts involving personnel.
Trustee John Housel argued that several months and hours of discussion still wasn’t enough time to do a careful analysis. Housel said he’d vote against the motions and recommended the board spend more time analyzing the proposal.
Statutorily, NWC is required to finalize its budget by July; in typical years, college leaders develop a draft in May.
However, Board President Mark Wurzel noted that faculty members are hired prior to the start of semesters. So any NWC faculty that are laid off, need to start seeking other employment now, if they’re to have something in place for the summer or fall semester.
Wurzel also asked Watson to recap all the analysis performed to date. The effort began when Gov. Gordon began talking about cutting state budgets last spring, and continued with countless meetings between numerous stakeholder groups — from faculty to student support service groups.
Watson said “no rock was left unturned,” and many options, such as program and activity eliminations, were considered.
Trustee Dusty Spomer said the proposed cuts were not rushed, but he understood the public has that perception. In developing the recommendations, Spomer said the board followed the data and the policy. Between the more than 70 submitted comments and the testimony given during the open forum, he said there was no information that hadn’t already been considered in the months-long process. Spomer said that demonstrated a “thorough” analysis had been completed.
However, Trustee Tara Kuipers argued the board should consider that passing the budget recommendations could cause the public to lose trust in the institution, as many perceive the cuts to be wrong.
“Even if they are not rushed, the perception that they are rushed and the institution’s setting in the community,” Kuipers said.
She also argued it would be worth tabling the motion if there’s a “sliver of opportunity to offer an alternative” to the proposed personnel cuts. It would also allow the board time to communicate to the community why the cuts were being made, Kuipers said.
Trustee Bob Newsome agreed the decisions had already been thoroughly analyzed and said nothing new would come of further discussions, describing them as business decisions that need to be made sooner or later.
“Hope is not a financial planning mechanism,” Newsome said.
President Watson stressed that, no matter what decision the board made at the meeting, the college’s budget would ultimately have to be reconciled.
On the motion to pass the non-personnel cuts, Housel made a motion to table it, which failed to receive a second. The board passed the motion to proceed with the non-personnel cuts, with Housel opposing the motion. The board voted unanimously to table the decision on the personnel cuts until the April board meeting.
In an interview after Thursday’s meeting, Danko again encouraged citizens to not only communicate with the NWC board, but also with legislators about the cuts.
“They [lawmakers] need to hear the personal stories of how this crisis is affecting them,” Danko said.