St. Louis Community College trustees approve faculty cuts over protesters' shouts | St. Louis Public Radio

St. Louis Community College trustees approve faculty cuts over protesters' shouts

Nov 30, 2017

St. Louis Community College’s workforce will shrink again as the institution tries to combat what administrators say is a looming budget crisis.

The college’s board of trustees approved a budget reduction plan Thursday during a raucous meeting that included a lengthy delay by protesters. The budget cuts include the second buyout package this year — plus layoffs of full-time teachers and staff. The plan also increases employee health care costs and eliminates other staff benefits.

Depending on the result of the buyout, the college could lay off up to 70 professors and another 25 staff members. The college currently employs 404 full-time teachers.

“There’s going to be some crying. There’s going to be some tears,” said Emily Neal, a professor who’s vice president of the full-time faculty union, in an interview before the vote.

A dozen speakers implored trustees to reconsider the faculty cuts during the public comment period. When it ended, four students laid on the floor in protest of the trustees and began shouting “Justice for our faculty!”

Others joined in and the trustees left the room for more than an hour.

St. Louis Community College Board of Trustees chairwoman Doris Graham, right, leaves the meeting room as protesters shout. The meeting was suspended for an hour before trustees returned to vote on a budget reduction plan.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

Trustees eventually returned to the room and voted in a small huddle as the chanting continued. Their votes were inaudible to anyone in the audience.

As trustees left the room, they refused to tell reporters the result of the votes. College spokeswoman Nez Savala eventually told members of the media the motion was approved. 

In a statement released later in the evening, Pittman said approving the workforce reduction was "a difficult decision for the Board, but it was necessary." 

Job cuts will be affective in May, at the end of the academic year, according to Savala. 

"I think the board has seen the extent to which students will go to protect their educational interests. The board of trustees has an opportunity to do what is right for students, faculty and the economic prosperity of this region," said Neal, of the faculty union, in a statement.

Financial struggle

St. Louis Community College professors hold up signs in support of speakers asking college trustees not to approve faculty and staff layoffs.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

The four-campus system has been dealing with the same budgetary issues as many other public higher education institutions in Missouri. State funding is being reduced at the same time enrollment is declining.

St. Louis Community College got $5 million less in state aid this year. The number of students at the two-year college is down a third since 2011, from 29,128 then to 19,052 this year.

Trustees approved an early retirement program in April. 117 workers took advantage of the offer. The college has put its downtown headquarters up for sale and reduced the number of administrative positions by 20 percent since 2015.

Officials say without this additional spending reduction, the college would still be $13 million dollars over budget by 2020.

Professors and students take issue with the administration’s spending priorities, saying it shouldn’t be erecting new buildings when workers lose their jobs. They also say administrative pay is too high.

Chancellor Jeff Pittman said in an interview Thursday afternoon upgrades to campus facilities are long overdue. He also says he’s “reached out multiple times” to teacher and student groups to hear their concerns and feedback about budget reductions.

“Sometimes when you’re in these periods of strife, new opportunities emerge for a better dialogue,” Pittman told St. Louis Public Radio.

Pittman said even after the faculty reductions, the college will still have a higher-than-average student-faculty ratio.

But Rob Hertel, a 17-year teaching veteran and president of the full-time faculty union, said the school needs to make system changes to balance its budget rather than cut workers every time revenue or enrollment dips.

“This didn’t just happen overnight. We didn’t get in this position in the last six months but yet now we’re going to solve this problem in a couple of months, basically?” Hertel said.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney