The Northwest College Board of Trustees voted 6-1 on Monday to eliminate 11 positions. The budget reduction includes five faculty positions and a member of the support staff, four positions at the …
The Northwest College Board of Trustees voted 6-1 on Monday to eliminate 11 positions. The budget reduction includes five faculty positions and a member of the support staff, four positions at the college’s day care center and a fitness center coordinator position that is currently open.
The measure was the final piece of a larger budget reduction proposal that was first presented to the board in January, in preparation for the coming fiscal year’s budget. Last spring, as the COVID-19 pandemic caused further declines to the state’s mineral revenues, Gov. Mark Gordon announced plans to trim spending. The series of cuts resulted in a $2.6 million budget shortfall for NWC.
In January, the college board voted for all the proposed budget reductions to shore up the shortfall, but tabled the portion of the proposal that included layoffs. At the time, the board decided it needed to do further analysis and get more public comment in hopes of avoiding the cuts, though the chances something would change were unlikely.
The board was prepared to delay the vote until May, but public pressure to make a decision — so those impacted by the cuts could move forward — led the board to schedule Monday’s special meeting for a final decision.
‘Past “to the bone”’
Trustee Carolyn Danko provided background on the cuts, illustrating why the college leaders didn’t have any other options. The cuts follow a number of budget reductions that began in 2013, with reductions in federal support. Over that time, the college has also seen a decline in enrollment.
“Every year, we have cut, cut, cut. Every non-living thing has been cut,” Danko said. “We are out of retirements. Attrition is no longer possible. We have eliminated much of the classified staff: custodians, kitchen help, librarians, secretaries.”
Early retirement eliminated most of the big salary positions at the college, Danko said, and it would take “a lot of $40,000 salaries to make it to $2.6 million.”
She provided more details on how the college combined classes and shuffled faculty around to maintain the bare minimum necessary to avoid cutting programs. The college also closed residence halls, renegotiated food service contracts, cut travel, reduced the number of coaches, and increased fees and tuition.
“I wish people knew how hard these cuts are. We are down past ‘to the bone,’” Danko said, pausing after her voice began to crack.
Danko also criticized voters for supporting legislators who cut budgets and then oppose taxes, only to complain when those cuts “hit their backyard.”
Danko added that the comments the board has received from the public tell the college what not to cut, but they don’t provide any solutions for the budget issues.
Trustee Tara Kuipers summed up the situation as a two-pronged crisis. On one hand, there are the “dire” budget shortfalls, which is what the board, she said, was trying to address at the special meeting. The second prong is the declining enrollment on campus that had been going on for 10 years.
“And as trustees, we have to have the leadership, and the guts, to deeply and seriously address the other prong of this crisis,” Kuipers said.
She said she saw a “steep drop-off of trust in the leadership” at the college, noting she was included in that group.
“The budget cuts are absolutely serious and one of the most challenging things any of us will have to do, until we dig into the other stuff,” Kuipers said.
Not enough information
Trustee John Housel said his ability to provide input on the cuts was limited due to the use of a Finance Committee, which did a lot of the analysis and developed the January proposal for budget cuts outside board meetings.
“I feel as though, through the involvement of having a committee decide the gravity of this type of decision … I have been deprived of my bringing to this table the ability to be involved in the deliberative process to make decisions in that process,” Housel said.
When it comes to the full analysis and review of the factual circumstances, the trustee said he is “in the dark.”
As a result, Housel said he would not support the motion to implement the reduction in force and cast the only vote against the motion.
“It’s a very hard sell for me,” he said.
Housel claimed he never was given the opportunity to fully discuss or explore options and provide his input on the cuts proposed. He said there was a discussion about cutting some less popular programs at board retreats over the past couple years, and later the discussion became about cutting faculty.
“That’s where I was left out of the picture,” Housel said.
Trustee Dusty Spomer argued that the issue they were considering was brought before the board multiple times, for the purposes of discussion and answering questions.
Spomer pointed out that governing bodies, including the Wyoming Legislature, regularly resort to committees in order to have the time and ability to delve into issues; committees allow a subset of the board to dig into and understand issues that come before the board as a whole.
Spomer disputed Housel’s claim that the discussion in board retreats was only about programs, and he said the proposals that came out of committee were only recommendations for the board.
“There were no decisions made by somebody in some back room,” Spomer said.
He explained the discussion on cutting programs led to concerns about the challenges in reinitiating the programs if the college needed to in the future. The decision that staffing levels would be reduced was a response to the college’s falling enrollment.
“We wouldn’t have 20 buses in the motor pool if we needed two,” Spomer explained.
The trustee added that he didn’t want to be callous about the impacts to the instructors who are losing their jobs, but the reality is the student population has shrunk.
“When those enrollment numbers come back,” the faculty numbers can be increased, Spomer said.
Board President Mark Wurzel agreed with Spomer that the committees have their role and place in the governance of the board, and he said there will be future discussions on how to improve the role they play. However, Wurzel argued, the information used and discussed in committee is made available to board members who want it.
“It is available, and we’ve had, what, three months now for people who feel they don’t have enough information for them to get more information,” he said.
After months of discussion and analysis, Wurzel said there was a need to make a decision, which would have significant impacts on the people whose positions were cut.
“People want us to get off the fence and make a decision, so people can get on with their lives,” Wurzel said.
Danko also noted that the college eliminated programs in previous rounds of budget cuts. As examples, she pointed to the cutting of the journalism program — which then degraded the quality of offerings for communication and photography students.
“We didn’t realize that by cutting the journalism program in particular that it would come back to bite us,” Danko said.
Two members of the community spoke on the cuts during the board’s open forum. Mallory Riley argued that, to recruit students, the college needed a better website design and marketing materials. Laura Riley, a former NWC employee who now serves on the Powell school board, questioned the wisdom of cutting faculty when it would further impact enrollment.
“I’m not sure how you can increase those full-time students when you’re getting rid of your full-time faculty,” she said.
The five faculty members who lost their jobs were in: ag business communications; life health science; physical science; social science; and visual, performing arts and humanity. The support staffer also worked in visual, performing arts and humanity.