Open the Books, Professors Plead

A union at the Community College of Philadelphia calls for greater financial transparency.
December 8, 2006

A faculty and staff union at the Community College of Philadelphia plans to pose one major question to the institution’s administration at a demonstration scheduled for today: Teachers and students open their books every day -- why won't administrators?

The Faculty & Staff Federation of the Community College of Philadelphia, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, plans to distribute leaflets and circulate a “mobile billboard” around the college’s main campus starting at 9 a.m. today to draw attention to their calls for greater financial transparency on the part of the institution, the latest development in ongoing contract negotiations. Classes will not be interrupted.

“Basically the college has said, ‘We need to save money on our health insurance,’ ” said John Braxton, an assistant professor of biology and co-president of the union, which is currently negotiating a new contract for all three of its bargaining units (full-time faculty, adjunct faculty and classified employees). “They’ve told us in negotiations that money is a factor. It always is, of course, but they’re saying it especially is this time, so we’d like to have clearer information about how they’re spending the money that they do have.”

But administrators at the college – which is exempted from the state’s open record law based on a decade-old court ruling – maintain that they supply “extensive information to the public” on the budget and programs every year. “We are confident that the union has all the information it needs to continue to provide excellent representation to its members and to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement with the college,” a statement provided by the college’s public relations coordinator reads in part.

The union is resisting a proposed cost-cutting plan to switch health care providers and offer what Braxton called an “inferior plan” with a smaller network of doctors. Full-time faculty and staff, who, while responsible for co-pays, are not required to contribute to the cost of their health care premiums, currently enjoy particularly good health benefits, Braxton said. While not entirely close-minded about switching providers, they eye the college's continuing $1.5 million “Path to Possibilities” public relations campaign with suspicion and want to see evidence that the college really is facing a budget crunch before making that sacrifice.

"We think it’s a good idea for the college to get this publicity, but we’re not sure this campaign is the best way to spend money. We feel that if they have the money to do this publicity, they can afford to maintain our health coverage,” said Braxton. He added that rumors of waste stemming from the campaign are circulating among faculty -- among them that the college trashed a truckload of usable stationery with the college’s old logo and that vinyl “Path to Possibilities” advertisements plastered to campus sidewalks had to be scraped off after students slipped and slid on them when it rained.

In a September 26 memo to President Stephen M. Curtis, the union requested information on topics including changes in the number of administrative staff, the number of administrators whose salaries fall into four different ranges, beginning at $80,000, and the total budget of the public relations campaign. In response, the two-year college's lawyer, Jill Weitz, who referred all comment to the college’s public relations coordinator Thursday, wrote, “The College is unable to understand the relevance of the requested information to any legal duty of the Federation. The College will not provide the requested information until the Federation establishes its relevance.”

In a subsequent memo, sent after one in which the union states its reasons for why their requests are relevant (“Without knowing this information, how can faculty and staff evaluate whether the salary and benefit packages offered are adequate or not?” union leaders wrote), Weitz maintained that the union “has no legal right to the information requested.”

But Weitz referred leaders to their copies of the 2006-7 budget, made available to the public, to find “the vast majority of this requested information.” An examination of this year’s budget in concert with those of years past would reveal detailed information about net new positions, administrative position changes and operating expenses, including information on administrative salaries, fringe benefit costs and legal costs, Weitz wrote in her November 28 memo. She also noted that the college has publicized its plans to spend $500,000 per year over the next three years to advertise its Path to Possibilities campaign. “In sum, it remains the College’s position that it has provided any information that the College has a legal obligation to provide,” Weitz wrote.

Braxton said that while the union does receive a copy of the budget each year, it contains generalities, not specifics. While the union is examining the budget to glean what information it can, he said it is difficult to get the sort of information they’re seeking from the document alone.

Yet, the college seems to be well within its rights, legal experts say. In 1996, the Pennsylvania State Supreme Court overruled a lower court, determining in Community College of Philadelphia v. Brown that community colleges in Pennsylvania are not subject to the state’s open record law because they do not classify as “agencies” as defined by the law -- because, the justices wrote, they do not provide an “essential service.”

“Commonwealth Court reasoned that in creating community colleges, the General Assembly sought to supply publicly funded education in locations not adequately served and has, thereby, declared that community colleges perform an essential function. We disagree,” the ruling reads.

“In sum, while the community colleges of Pennsylvania perform important educational services, we know of no authority which holds that their services are ‘essential.’ We hold, therefore, that community colleges are not subject to the Right to Know Act because they are not ‘agencies’ as that term is defined in the act.”

“The college is on solid ground here. They probably gave more than they had to, unfortunately,” said Robert Richards, a professor of law and journalism at Pennsylvania State University and vice president of the state’s newly formed Freedom of Information Coalition. Pennsylvania’s Right to Know act, added Robert Power, a professor of law at Widener University’s Harrisburg campus, is especially narrow in comparison to open record laws in other states.


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