COS faculty disappointed that funds budgeted for their pay left unspent

Mike Meyer
College of the Siskiyous

The final budget to operate College of the Siskiyous for the 2020-2021 year ran into a chorus of criticism from faculty members during a public hearing last Tuesday, Oct. 20. But the budget was unanimously approved by the college Board of Trustees.

The issue driving criticism focused on dollars budgeted for faculty pay in 2019-2020 that were not spent, and the lack of proportion between what was termed the “consistent” level of administration pay and decreasing faculty pay.

In all, eight of the 37 full time COS instructors submitted comments to the board. The comments were read during the Zoom meeting by Public Relations Director Dawnie Slabaugh, as were all other written input.

The faculty expressed their frustration and questioned the transparency of the administration and of COS president and superintendent, Dr. Stephen Schoonmaker. Schoonmaker and other administrators’ responses were explanatory during the meeting, though because of the complexity of budget calculations, it was not always apparent how answers related to the comments.

College of the Siskiyous Superintendent and President Dr. Stephen Schoonmaker

In a separate interview, Schoonmaker and Vice President Of Administrative Services Darlene Melby made their case that the budget process for the past 11 months had been ongoing and complex and that the district has acted in good faith. Outreach to members of faculty for a reply to subsequent administration points failed to draw a response.

But anchoring the chorus of doubt about the legitimacy of the budget were the unspent instructional dollars in the amount of $413,000 that were budgeted for 2019-2020. This mattered to faculty because it meant the amount COS spent on salaries had dropped below the 50% legal requirement of all instructional money spent.

California Education Code section 84362 requires that half the cost of education be spent for the salaries of classroom instruction. This is known as the “50 percent law.”

Because of the shortfall in spending, COS submitted a placeholder with the state for an exemption of the 50% law on Sept. 15.

It was this, coupled with a subsequent finding by the administration that the exemption was not necessary after all, that had Faculty Association President Michael Tischler calling for an audit.

“I want to know where $413,000 was found,” Tischler wrote for the public hearing. “To promote transparency in how COS is spending our taxpayer dollars, will the Board of Trustees agree to allow an independent third party to audit compliance with the fifty percent law last year...?” Tischler asked. He said the faculty association “would bear the full cost of the audit.”

“What possible reason could the board have to reject this offer?” he asked.

Other comments showed many faculty also reacting to the final version of the budget with the 50% requirement met. One comment from chemistry professor Andrea Craddock said, “We’re supposed to have 75% full time, now it’s less than 50%.”

Patrice Thatcher-Stephens said, “It is confusing to, now, be notified that this money has been accounted for appropriately.” Thatcher-Stephens is the program coordinator for child development and early education.

And biological and physical sciences instructor Jenny Heath wrote, “Academic salaries continue to decrease. Administrator, ASM, and classified salaries ... remain fairly consistent from previous years.” Heath also wrote, “Hourly Instructional (part time or temporary faculty) and Instructional Overload (extra classes taught by full time faculty) has increased by $100,000.”

Aside from budget transparency, one faculty member said that having fewer full time instructors adversely affects the college. “We know that more full time faculty increases success and the retention rate. It makes for a more diverse faculty, provides more diverse voices representing the campus, makes more faculty available to serve on committees,” Maria Fernandez commented during the public hearing. Fernandez chairs the Distance Learning Committee and is an instructor of English and Humanities.

Several of the faculty’s comments were put to Schoonmaker and Melby the day after the hearing. Schoonmaker said he thought much of the dissatisfaction is related to the association’s extended salary negotiations with the college district. “It’s a strategy, they want to compensate employees better. I understand that.

“Our job is to budget with what we have. We can’t over-extend. I try my best to be a responsible steward of public dollars,” he said.

Administrators clarified how the percentage of full time instructors is found. Schoonmaker pointed to “the FON,” a calculation provided by the California Community Colleges to each college.

“The FON (Faculty Obligation Number ) is the number of full time faculty a particular college should have,” he said. The college sent a further clarification on Friday, saying the FON is a means of “ensuring that community colleges adjust their number of full-time faculty in proportion to any change in credit FTES.”

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Schoonmaker said the state recommends that “colleges reach 75% of their FON. He the FON for COS in 2019-2020 was 24. “We have 38.7 full time faculty. So this is 160% of last year’s FON.

“Most people we talk to are shocked when they hear this. Of the 117 California community colleges, I don’t believe there’s a higher rate than COS has.”

Regarding an audit of the budget, Schoonmaker said it would be a waste of time and money.

“We’ve already had a separate, third-party audit done. They follow every auditing rule correctly – they have to, they’re putting their reputation on the line.”

Regarding the unspent $413,000 in instructional money for the 2019-2020 year, Schoonmaker said the district was unable to spend the money when the pandemic struck because of the complete shutdown of some face-to-face courses.

“A lot of it was non-credit ESL (English as a Second Language). We wanted to convert them to online, but it didn’t happen. So we didn’t spend the money.”

Melby and her associate, Kent Gross of Accounting Services, were asked how was it that the $413,000 was not spent, resulting in falling under the 50% level, but then later the college found it had spent 50% on instruction?

During the public hearing Gross explained the change. He said the 50% level was reached by “scrutinizing the budget, and expenses. It isn’t that we added spent money back into the budget, we removed things that are not part of cost of education.” And on Thursday, Gross re-iterated in an email that staff had “continued to scrutinize our expenditures. The district met the fifty percent calculation through a reduction of the overall current expense of education.”

About salary discrepancies between faculty and administration, Schoonmaker said upper faculty received a pay increase, but upper management didn’t take an increase. “I’m in my fourth year at COS and still have not taken a pay increase.” It’s voluntary, he said, adding, “we do it because the budget is tight.”

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Melby said faculty receive automatic pay raises. “But the total number went down because some faculty retired. When we hire a replacement it’s often at a lower rate, because of experience and other things. And some faculty are already at their highest pay level.”

About faculty complaints regarding part time and overload instruction, Melby said, “When the faculty points to the hourly instruction line (in the budget), they are actually pointing to their own money. The extra hours they teach, above their contracted workload, comes out of hourly instruction and teaching overload. We take this information to the board every month, it’s documented.”

Melby explained that the budget process for the year started last September. “The tentative budget went to the board in June. We try get it as close to the final budget as we can, but usually there are small differences. This year, though, estimates of money from the state constantly varied. In June the deficit of state funds was estimated at $1.5 million. Then last night it was down to $183,000. When you have swings like that it’s really hard to plan.”