Thursday, October 19, 2006
For the past two years, the administration at Hartnell College has held its position firm: offer the same 3 percent raise to the teachers union to maintain the fiscal stability of the Salinas community college.
But with a third of its teachers prepared to strike, and thousands of students pledging not to cross the picket lines, the college may have to give in or its strategy could backfire.
By the Weekly’s deadline the college’s nearly 150 unionized faculty were still trying to negotiate a contract for the 2004-05 school year. A week ago, Hartnell’s unionized teachers overwhelmingly authorized the council of the Hartnell College Faculty Association to call a strike should negotiations fizzle.
A strike at Hartnell—the first faculty strike at a California community college in more than 30 years—could get students dropped from classes and also derail enrollment growth at the college in the spring.
“If there is a strike we are going to lose more money,” says Hartnell Trustee Bill Freeman. “We are going to lose more enrollment. We are going to lose big time.”
Less students completing their classes and a decline in enrollment next semester would mean less money from the state, which uses a formula including the amount of full-time equivalent students to give colleges the brunt of their budget.
Ironically, lessened enrollment is the primary reason Hartnell officials cite for not being able to meet the teachers’ demands.
The dispute between the teachers and administration is bigger than a one-year contract, however—it’s a power struggle for who will control the campus.
“I think it has nothing to do with money and it has everything to do with egos now,” says Christine Svendsen, president of the Faculty Association.
As if settling one contract hasn’t taken long enough, the union is also seeking a three-year contract to bring their salaries 2 percent above cost of living adjustments (COLAs) passed down from the state for the 2005-06 and 2006-07 fiscal years.
“We live in the most expensive county in the state of California,” says Peter Calvert, a member of the negotiating team for the Faculty Association. “We need to have the COLA.”
In the past, the college has offered a retroactive 3 percent raise and to pay $1,000 toward monthly benefit premiums, while the union has sought a 2.41 percent raise plus higher step increases based on additional experience and education. Faculty also want the college to pay the full $1,035 in insurance payments.
The difference between the two stances: a mere $335,000.
Hartnell officials say they can’t find the money despite the fact that the community college system is facing its brightest budget picture in several years—more than $600 million above last fiscal year.
This fiscal year, the state kicked Hartnell down an extra $6.8 million compared to last.
“It’s really unconscionable with the level of increase that we got that this kind of fight is occurring,” says Jonathan Lightman, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, a statewide junior college faculty advocacy group.
Larry Carrier, the college’s vice president, says the additional money has resulted in little overall gain. While state revenues have increased, local property taxes are down and expenses are up across the board.
Additionally, Hartnell administrators are worried about more than the faculty contract.
The college may have to reopen the 2004-05 contracts for the classified employees and maintenance staff unions if the teachers get a better deal.
“It’s really short-sighted to believe that the organization can simply turn around and say ‘give the faculty what they want,’” says Edward Valeau, Hartnell’s president. “It’s not just about rewarding the faculty in terms of contract negotiations. It’s also about the other unions we have to work with.”
The union contends that Hartnell’s full-time faculty earn an average of $52,722 a year and are at the bottom of the list of 72 college districts statewide.
A California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office report, which originally backed the faculty’s figure, puts Hartnell’s average salary toward the bottom of the state at about $67,000.
In July, a fact-finding panel headed by attorney Joe Henderson found that the college had $993,000 in an insurance fund that could be used to pay faculty the extra money it was asking for, including about $350,000 for the 2004-05 school year.
But Valeau says the money is finite and already reserved to pay worker’s compensation claims and benefits for future retirees.
With the exception of two board members, Hartnell’s Board of Trustees backs the administration’s position.
Valeau has always been at the center of the more than two-year-long dispute.
Faculty Association President Svendsen says Valeau is the puppet master of the trustees. The Board has been progressively bumping up his salary while teachers have become among the lowest paid in the state.
On Oct. 3 the majority of the board gave Valeau a positive evaluation for the 2005-06 fiscal year. This translates to a 2 percent raise and makes him eligible for another 1 percent raise for each of the seven goals he is lauded for. His salary now stands at $222,000.
The high-paid Louisianan has been superintendent of the district since 1995 and criticized for his conduct throughout his tenure.
In 1998 allegations surfaced that Valeau sexually harassed two women on the college staff and used racially derogatory terms about members of the Hartnell College community.
The college is still defending Valeau in a sexual harassment suit involving former nursing director Lydia Hampton-Stewart.
In January a state court of appeals sided with the college’s right to terminate Hampton-Stewart during the summer of 2003, after more than two years in court.
Before the appeal, the college had spent more than $300,000 on attorney fees to defend the dismissal—which Valeau recommended to the Board of Trustees, says Michelle Welsh, a Pacific Grove attorney who represented Hampton-Stewart in the dismissal case on behalf of the faculty union.
In July, Valeau motioned that he was going to resign at the end of the year but then rescinded his decision.
Two weeks ago, Trustee Freeman renewed his call for the president to step down. Freeman and Juan Martinez are the only Valeau opponents on the eight-member board.
Most recently, the president has come under fire from teachers for being a partner with Carrier and the college’s former human resources director in the ELS (Ed, Larry, Sallie) Group, a headhunting firm for community colleges.
The group, which was formed about two years ago as a division of International Search Partners, has had contracts replacing administrators at West Valley Mission and San Jose Evergreen community college districts.
Sallie Savage, Hartnell’s past HR director, says she does all the day-to-day work of the ELS Group from her Monterey home and only occasionally consults with Carrier and Valeau in the evening or on weekends.
“I do this on my vacation time,” Valeau says. “I love what I do (as Hartnell president). I am committed to what I’m doing.” All three partners say they don’t do business at Hartnell College because that would be a conflict of interest.
Moreover, the ELS Group is not involved with temporarily hiring retired administrators to fill in for striking teachers, Valeau and Savage say.
Valeau says the college would use part-time teachers and administrators, possibly pulling some from retirement, to keep the college open in case of a strike, but there could be gaps.
Still, under Valeau’s leadership Hartnell appears to be doing something right.
The college of about 8,500 students has seen a slight yet steady increase in enrollment since fall of last year, while neighboring campuses have been declining in numbers.
This fall the community college’s enrollment is up about 2 percent compared to last year, says Mary Dominguez, director of enrollment services for Hartnell.
With a new library and parking garage and students fees decreasing from $26 to $20 per unit in January, Hartnell could continue attracting more students and setting them on the path to transferring to a four-year university.
But college officials say the school is still making up for lost enrollment in 2003 and 2004. They say it can’t count on increases in class sizes to fund teachers’ pay raises—especially with a looming strike.
Lorenzo Holguin, the college’s student body president, says more than 4,000 students have signed a petition to not cross the picket lines if Hartnell faculty strike.
Many of Hartnell’s students—more than half of which are Latino—have ties to unions through their families, who work in the agricultural fields or processing plants, Holguin says.
Holguin, a student at Hartnell since 2000, says he has seen many teachers go to other campuses that pay better and a pay raise will help the college retain faculty.
“We are going to fight for the education of the students that come behind us,” he says. “This should have been fixed many years ago.”