Hartnell College Strike Continues

Faculty at a California community college picket over pay while administrators vow to keep classes going.
October 24, 2006

A faculty strike at Hartnell College is leaving administrators scrambling to fill in for instructors as the institution hunkers into survival mode. Its non-instructional staff is striving to fulfill the goal of keeping the California community college and all of its classes running while more than half of the faculty -- among the lowest-paid community college faculties in the state -- pickets outside.

A faculty strike involving about 150 full- and part-time instructors began at 5:30 a.m. Friday, an aggressive action after more than two years of relative inaction regarding a new faculty contract that would now, if approved, be retroactive to the 2004-5 school year. Not a single class has been canceled since the strike began, President Edward J. Valeau said, despite the fact that only about 100 of the college's regular faculty remain on the job. Administrators are plugging in the holes -- a decision college officials characterize as a will to continue offering a core educational program, and a faculty leader characterizes as “bordering on fraud.”

Representatives of both sides say the primary sticking point remaining is the size of a retroactive raise for the 2005-6 academic year, and are hopeful that an independent state mediator who arrived on campus Monday morning will help to expedite a resolution.

But emotions surrounding the strike are high -- with the two sides gesturing toward two independent reports, one that describes the poor financial shape of the college, another that says it has the ability to meet the faculty's demands  -- and the implications personal, with unrest over the board’s support of Valeau playing a role in inciting the decision to strike, said Christine Svendsen, a computer science instructor and president of the Hartnell Faculty Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association

Faculty supporters point to a July report released by a state-funded “fact-finding panel” that argues that the administration can afford to meet the demands of the Faculty Association. Yet Valeau said he disagrees with the fact finders’ conclusions, and cited a May report by the Fiscal Crisis Management and Assistance Team, an entity designated by the state of California to assist local educational institutions with financial concerns, that states that Hartnell, which faces declining enrollments, could find itself with a negative balance by fiscal year 2007-8 if current levels of deficit spending continue. “To pile on any more costs that we have to incur, the district will not be able to hold,” Valeau said.

“Now having said that, we have gone in and made concessions with the faculty, wherein we have tried to find those additional resources," the president said. "Finding those additional resources suggests that we’re going to need an increase in enrollment of 675 students every year for the next three years. We’re prepared to take that risk."

But Svendsen said she has lost all confidence in the credibility of the administrative negotiating team. “The fact-finding report said that the school failed to prove its inability to pay,” she said. “In fact, the school did have the money and what they were doing is moving monies around.”

“It’s only been within the past week that they’ve suddenly found all this money, so they’ve really lost their credibility when it comes to putting together a package.”

Data from the California Community College Chancellor’s Office situates Hartnell College’s tenured/tenure-track 2005 faculty average salary of $66,998 as the 13th-lowest among the state’s 72 community college districts. The institution has offered a 3 percent retroactive and recurring salary increase to full- and part-time faculty for 2004-5, a 3 percent one-time-only retroactive increase for full and part-time faculty for 2005-6, and a 5 percent recurring increase to full-time faculty for 2006-7, with a 6.23 to 6.71 percent salary increase to part-time faculty. The college has also offered a $12,000 annual per-person contribution toward health benefits for full-time faculty in 2004-5, $13,200 in 2005-6 and $14,400 in 2006-7.

Meanwhile, the Faculty Association is holding out for at least a 4.6 percent recurring increase in 2005-6, Svendsen said. The association also is still advocating for full health care coverage on the part of the college, but Svendsen said the members would likely sign onto the Hartnell benefits proposal, which she said would reduce annual faculty contributions from $411 this year to $39 in 2006-7. 

“We are so close,” said Steve McShane, president of Hartnell’s elected Board of Trustees. “When you look at the differences in the two packages at this point, I was surprised that we went to a strike. That said, there is a lot of emotion and frustration on everybody’s part.”

“Mr. McShane might say we are close,” Svendsen said in response. “But if you call playing two games in two different ballparks ‘close’.... We couldn’t be further apart if we tried.”

Still, both sides say they are hopeful that a resolution will be reached shortly and that the Faculty Association, whose leader has pledged not to break the strike until a contract is set, will pack up its picket signs. When asked whether there is a long-term academic plan in the event the strike continues, Valeau responded that he would “prefer to think that there is no need for a long-term plan as we would prefer to find a solution to this situation.”

Meanwhile, Allan M. Hoffman, vice president for instruction and assistant superintendent at Hartnell, said the college is “doing whatever we can” to meet the educational needs of students, hiring substitutes and placing administrators with content expertise in the appropriate classrooms whenever possible. In addition, about 110 faculty members are still on the job, a college spokeswoman said, and continue to come to their classrooms. In a list of responses to frequently asked questions about the strike on Hartnell’s Web site, the college asserts that attendance records will be maintained throughout the duration of the strike, and reiterates its attendance policy that a student may be dropped from a course after missing one class period more than twice the number of class periods offered per week.

“It’s been proven that no teaching and learning is happening in the classroom. What they’re trying to do is bordering on fraud at this point,” Svendsen said. “The reality of the matter is, we’ve got classrooms that just have attendance sign-in sheets taped to the door.”

“The students that do go in come out and report that there are maintenance people in there taking roll and they can’t offer any instruction,” said Robert Chacanaca, president of the Monterey Bay Central Labor Council, which represents 58 unions, including Hartnell’s Faculty Association, from Monterey and Santa Cruz counties.

The college is up for accreditation in March 2007, and Valeau, who conceded that the college’s academic values have been temporarily “compromised” by the strike, is concerned that the strike will “be a part of the conversation” with accreditors. “I think that in this short period of time, any institution that has to go through what we’re going through will have its educational program compromised,” Valeau said. “But (I want) to emphasize the fact that we as an institution must do all we can to keep the institution open and try to provide the instruction and support to our students as they are in attendance.”

Svendsen said that the “tipping point” for faculty had been the board’s positive marks on a presidential performance review members completed earlier this month, along with a board decision to defend a sexual harassment lawsuit against the president, while faculty were told there was no money available to meet their demands. 

Valeau said that the case in question is continuing litigation on the part of the community college to pursue charges against an employee accused of misappropriating money, and defending that employee’s counter-accusations, among them a sexual harassment charge stricken by a judge in February. Valeau said he knows of no open sexual harassment cases that the college is currently litigating.

Still, Bill Freeman, a member of the Board of Trustees and an advocate for the faculty, said that Hartnell has spent close to $900,000 in his past three years on the board “on one single case” that he declined to name. “I’ve been a critic of that because it just seems like we can do that, but we can’t take care of the faculty?” said Freeman, who said the board recently voted to initiate an investigation into an accusation that he has leaked sensitive information to the faculty, a charge he and Svendsen both deny.

“Everybody wants to settle this,” said McShane, the board president. “The amount of effort and energy that I’ve seen in the last couple weeks has really skyrocketed. There have been many more meetings and many more hours in the last week than we’ve seen up to this point.”

“Everybody involved knows that a strike is not a solution. Negotiations continue and will continue this week.”

He added: “I remain optimistic.”


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