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The State of Columbia Gorge Community College

Employees ‘speaking from a position of ignorance’

This guest editorial was submitted by the following members of the Columbia Gorge Community College Board of Education: MD Van Valkenburgh, Dave Fenwick, Charlotte Arnold, Charleen Cobb, Dr. Jim Willcox and Dr. Ernie Keller.

The citizens of Hood River and Wasco counties have invested time and money over decades in building up Columbia Gorge Community College so that is now recognized as one of the most successful small community colleges in the state and nation. Unfortunately, employee Tim Schell and some other instructors at our college are spreading false information to defame their CEO so that he would resign under the harassment. Even though our college president and his staff are credited with much of its success, these employees are either speaking from a position of ignorance …

First, contrary to recent statements from Schell, there is no budget “crisis” at our college — just an annual budget process like all government institutions. This next fiscal year (starting July 1) there are relatively less support funds from the state. Sometimes there’s more. Also, the president doesn’t even set the budget and expenditures. The board and budget committee have that responsibility. The Chief Financial Officer has been involving ALL departments and individuals during countless meetings and open dialogue to help create the suggested budget for next year.

Second, the Hood River campus was never going to be shut down — that was misinformation. After approving this school year’s budget a year ago, the CGCC board asked the president to prepare a list of possible revenue sources and expense cuts. Along with suggestions including possible layoffs and cutting classes was the potential savings of facilities closures, which the board subsequently dismissed.

Third, the board asked the president to build up reserves years ago in case of possible “rainy day” needs. During the great recession, the board and budget committee directed the president to use the reserve fund to serve the much higher enrollment of students looking for re-training. Enrollment always increases at colleges during economic downturns. Most other community colleges in the state didn’t have the reserves so they cut employees and services BEFORE the enrollment increase. CGCC was able to delay cuts until AFTER the recession, when enrollment returned to more normal levels. That’s why our college is cutting staff now. Many CGCC instructors and staff had jobs during the recession, which they wouldn’t have had without the large reserve fund. CGCC graduated a record number of students during the recession who then got new jobs.

No longer content with merely voicing their rancor over not being able to choose their own boss a couple of years ago, Schell and these instructors have moved to force their opinions upon others, and are hurting the very institution they pretend to care about … Should the community have confidence in them?

And in attempting to usurp the board’s authority over the position of college president, they have not only drawn the negative attention of their superiors, but also the displeasure of the unpaid community representatives on the board.

As a business manager or owner, could you imagine having some of your employees under the protection of union contracts calling for your ouster, just because they didn’t like you? This is one of the smallest community colleges in one of the smallest states, and not the Ivy-league private university they imagine themselves in. Schell and these employees are diminishing the reputation and value of the college we all locally own …

Editor’ note: This letter was written following a combination of phone calls and emails between the six board members listed. Board member Stu Watson was excluded from the process. The board members’ original letter was published in The Dalles Chronicle on May 7 with three statements that, when questioned on Monday, M.D. Van Valkenburgh asked be removed as unfounded or overly harsh. Board member Charlotte Arnold, who is challenged on the May 19 ballot by Guy Fenner, said the letter was intended to “do something positive and give our students some confidence” in CGCC.

Board members seem to care little about college’s decline

By STU WATSON

It’s nice to know that outgoing CGCC board member Dave Fenwick (in his endorsement letter May 9) applauds the commitment of three board candidates to standards of the Association of Community College Trustees. I assume he meant no disrespect, or insinuation to the contrary, about the other three candidates, myself included.

What I find troubling about Mr. Fenwick’s letter is his open admission that he is leaving the board so he can apply for a job with the college. This, two days after he and five other board members signed an op-ed piece in The Dalles Chronicle — crafted without notice to me, or the public, which suggests a violation of Oregon Open Meetings Law — in which the writers thumbed their noses at the “no confidence” and “censure” votes by the faculty. Just a ploy in the run-up to contract talks, they said. They invited instructors to quit if they didn’t like the way things are going, because the college could easily replace them.

One might wonder how effective a sitting board member can be if he is hoping for a positive reception to a job application after leaving office. ORS 244.040(1) prohibits public officials from using their official positions or offices to create a new employment opportunity.

Lately, Mr. Fenwick has implied to me that I am not falling in line, and saluting as if that were a requirement of board service. He and several board members from Wasco County seem to believe that independent research and forming an opinion on more than the sanitized administrative report is unethical. Isn’t that my job? Perhaps I should sleep through parts of meetings, as some of my colleagues do?

In the last two years, I have asked many associated with the college, “What’s really going on?” In aggregate, I get a picture of a broken institution, low morale, a management focused on its own agenda and openly contemptuous of the board and faculty.

One example. The college awarded a new three-year auditing contract to the firm that rated fifth in the college’s own review process, bypassing the second-ranked firm, which bid $108,000 less. The board approved the contract, but it was not given the evaluations or bids for comparison. A leaked document showed that we were snowed.

Information compiled by budget committee member Karen Fairchild showed that CGCC devotes 28 percent of its budget to “institutional support,” while the rest of the state’s community colleges average around 21 percent. The impact at CGCC means a loss of advisers and financial aid support that incoming students sorely need.

Yet given a chance to shift $272,000 in the 2015-16 budget from administrative overhead to student services — which had been most heavily hit in the administration’s budget proposal — six committee members, led by the Board members from Wasco County, effectively killed the idea.

College President Frank Toda recently told the budget committee “words matter.” They do, indeed. Which is why I was distressed to hear in March from the student body president that Dr. Toda had told her “he didn’t care what the faculty or board thought of him.”

Actions also matter. By failing to involve the board in discussions about possible solutions to the looming budget crisis, and announcing Nov. 18 that one of three stratagems to balance the budget was to close the Hood River campus, Dr. Toda left me feeling blindsided and betrayed.

This, six months after spending over $20,000 on a consultant to guide a brainstorming process for a new building on the … Hood River campus? When the existing building is at 38 percent of capacity? This is a ship adrift or, as one current college department director told me, “aground.”

We were told Nov. 18 that the administration also hoped to correct the budget deficit by 1) seeking new sources of money, and 2) increasing enrollment.

Since then, we have seen no new sources of money, steady enrollment declines, and no ideas to reverse that. Just staff buyouts and layoffs.

New courses and certificates announced in November have been shelved to balance the budget. How will that increase enrollment?

The person who led CGCC fund-raising efforts for eight years? He quit in January, out of disgust.

It’s distressing to me that the rest of the board seems to care little about this. I do. That is why – once privately on Nov. 24, and again publicly at the March board meeting — I have asked Dr. Toda to resign. And it’s why I am running for re-election. It’s time to get this school back on track to “building dreams, transforming lives.”

Stu Watson has been on the college board since 2007. Before that he served on the Budget Committee and Annexation Committee.



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ohmoxide 2 years, 6 months ago

Thank you Stu.

You are the only voice of reason and accountability on the board.

-Rob

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