Seattle Colleges’ $14 million financial forecast frustrates staff

Unexpected savings usually bring joy, but news that Seattle’s college budget shortfall is only a fraction of what was expected sparks frustration among staff and more turnover among high-level leaders.

At the Seattle Colleges Board of Trustees meeting earlier this month, trustees announced that the Community College District’s budget gap ended at approximately $3 million in the past fiscal year – an amount considerably less than the estimated deficit of $17 million included in its first 2021-2022 Budget Plan.

The news came as an unpleasant surprise to many who say the error has had a dramatic ripple effect across the college system this year, especially in conversations with administration about staff compensation, positions vacancies and the future of certain programs.

The projected shortfall caused some employees to leave their jobs and school administrators to avoid rehiring for certain positions, which meant limited support for existing employees. And key management positions remained vacant.

Annette Stofer, president of the teachers’ union, said the revelation that the school system was not in a difficult financial situation which she previously considered “shocking and appalling”, because the union is negotiating with the school management. for months to raise teachers’ salaries and hasn’t made much progress.

“The response was always ‘we don’t have anything for you, look at the district finances, we don’t have money for you,’” Stofer said. “Suddenly there was an admission: ‘we made an error “, and we continued with this error for what, an entire year?”

Stofer said the entry-level salary for a new full-time faculty member is about $71,800. (For comparison, the average base salary for K-12 teachers in Seattle public schools was $79,960 in 2021, according to state data.)

The expected gap has also pushed some employees out of colleges, and the loss of senior executives has been particularly difficult to manage, said Cody Hiatt, president of the professional staff union.

“My members have made decisions about their future, their jobs,” he said. “It saddens me that much of our institutional knowledge has disappeared because of this poor budget situation.” Seattle Colleges is made up of three community college campuses: North Seattle, South Seattle, and Seattle Central.

Hiatt said the projected gap also means its members’ final contract was “very modest” and included raises for the lowest-paid professional staff to earn an annual salary of at least $64,000, as well as incentives. to retention that would come into effect over the next two years. . The contract also promised a third-party pay study and a commitment to use $250,000 to increase base salaries in 2024. But the turnover rate among its members was 22% a month after its union concluded the new three-year contract this summer.

“It makes me really sad to see my members leaving the colleges because I believe very strongly in the mission of the colleges and that we transform lives through education, but it is also the institution’s responsibility to also educate itself and to learn from those mistakes,” he said.

Those mistakes sparked changes at the top, only adding to the rotation of Seattle Colleges leadership after former Seattle Colleges chancellor Shouan Pan quit in August, two years before the scheduled end of his term. contract.

The budget mistake prompted Terence Hsiao, the vice chancellor of finance and operations, to announce his retirement this week. In an email to staff announcing his departure, he cited the importance of accountability and credibility.

“This year we projected a deficit of $17 million and ended the year with a deficit of $3 million. Good because it reflects considerable fiscal discipline, bad because too big of a difference reflects poor forecasting,” he wrote.

Although the school adjusted the estimated shortfall in budget updates earlier this year — saying in May the gap would likely be closer to $13 million — officials point to the high number of vacancies, savings unexpected on “goods and services” and lack of personnel. among the budget data teams as key factors in the erroneous forecast.

New interim Chancellor Rosie Rimando-Chareunsap said in a statement that the gap shows the need for new leadership, as well as stronger tax systems and practices. Bradley Lane, acting president of Seattle Central, will immediately begin looking for Hsiao’s replacement, and the college district is reviewing its internal financial management systems, she said.

Even with the estimated budget gap much smaller than previously thought, Rimando-Chareunsap said existing workforce programs such as Seattle Central’s Wood Technology Center and its culinary program need to become more self-sufficient. . Lawmakers and industry leaders visited the center and three other popular tech and business programs in September as part of an effort to explore changes the Legislative Assembly could make in 2023 to support them.

It’s not just a goal in Seattle: The State Board of Community and Technical Colleges also released its legislative priorities this week, asking lawmakers for $77 million to support workforce development programs in Washington. . The board is also asking lawmakers to provide $157 million to fully fund salary increases for community college faculty and staff across the state — an increase of about 6.5% per year over the next biennium. .

But despite discussions of the larger politics behind community college funding, some faculty in Seattle’s college system don’t hold out much hope. They say internal unrest and a lack of transparency have worsened for the college district in recent years.

And while Hiatt says he has full confidence in the leadership of Interim Chancellor Rimando-Chareunsap to drive essential changes so that more mistakes like this do not happen again in the future, this final chapter of the he story of the budget crisis has taken its toll.

“It comes down to a real damaging blow to our credibility.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Vice-Chancellor Terence Hsiao’s last name as a second reference.

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