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College pay always low for select few

Fri., July 20, 2012, midnight

If you think it’s crazy that the Community Colleges of Spokane is hiking salaries for presidents, vice presidents and deans as it cuts salaries for janitors, plumbers and groundskeepers, join the club.

Even in a fiscal crisis, it seems, the smallest salaries are too big, and the biggest salaries are too small.

But, more surprisingly, you might also find that you’re in agreement – sort of – with one of the people who designed and supported the pay increases.

“It’s a crazy system,” said Greg Stevens, chief financial guy for CCS. “You wouldn’t design it that way on your worst day.”

Stevens is talking about the series of controls and limits that the college operates under when it comes to salaries. Down there in the weeds of human-resources detail – with the legislative bill numbers and the union contracts – it does indeed seem illogical to the extreme. In particular, he said, the college did not want to cut the pay of classified staffers, but was locked into it by complications surrounding the collective bargaining agreement.

But from a clarifying distance, there is only this: The classified staff is getting a 3 percent pay cut. The instructional staff is not getting raises. Students will see their tuition rise by 12 percent this fall.

And administrative salaries are rising.

The smallest salaries are too big, and the biggest ones are too small. Always, always.

Shouldn’t this storyline be depressingly boring by this point instead of freshly outrageous and shocking? The arms race of higher and higher salaries for administrators and executives in all walks of life – executives sitting on boards of trustees, choosing to pay higher salaries to executives, based on the salaries that other executives are paying their executives – always provides the rationalization for raising the top salaries even more.

It seems like there would come a time when administrators would be too embarrassed to accept a raise while cutting the pay of the guy who empties their trash.

In a time when education funding is always – and I mean always – on the verge of a cut, it seems that college leaders would consider the possibility that these well-rationalized salary increases for those making six figures will only serve the cause of those who want to starve our education system of resources.

Here’s what the board of trustees at CCS approved this week: The salary for the presidents of the three CCS organizations – Spokane Community College, Spokane Falls Community College and the Institute for Extended Learning – rises from $147,900 a year to $165,000. The salary for the position of vice president of learning is going from $101,873 to $116,873. And the salary for vice presidents of student services rises from $95,029 to $104,029.

In addition, the step system for administrators like deans and other managers of divisions and departments increased by about $3,000 per step – taking the top-end salary for the highest such class from $86,543 to $89,664.

The rationale for these increases is the same as it ever was: CCS was paying administrators less than other colleges, mostly on the West Side.

“We were so far behind the market, I was concerned, our chancellor was concerned, and our board was concerned about the kind of candidates we could attract,” Stevens said.

Stevens understands that a lot of us find this hard to swallow. The pay cuts, the tuition hikes, the tight budgets – he gets it, he says. And there is a lot more to this than meets the eye.

As budgets have been cut and cut again in recent years, CCS has not raised its administrative salaries, he said. It was paying its presidents about $30,000 less than the state average. Furthermore, the colleges can only raise those salaries, under current budget limits, when the positions come open.

This year, state funding was stable, and a lot of administrative positions came open. Stevens said CCS had to decide whether to act now, in this limited window of opportunity, or let the salaries fall further behind.

The classified pay cut, on the other hand, was out of the board’s control. It was negotiated as part of the classified employees’ statewide union contract with the governor’s office. That union swallowed a tough deal, given that the state is in a financial crisis. It accepted a sacrifice. And, while CCS had been able to avoid pay cuts for other employees through layoffs and holding vacancies open, it could not get permission to do the same for classified workers, who operate as a statewide bargaining unit, Stevens said.

“It isn’t something done locally,” he said. “Doesn’t reflect our desires. Doesn’t reflect our values. We’d just as soon we didn’t do it.”

Tim Welch, a spokesman for the Washington Federation of State Employees, understands the dynamic involved and said he wishes the state would allow the colleges some flexibility to avoid the classified pay cut by making other savings. Still, he said, during a fiscal crisis, with sacrifices being made in programs and positions across the board, it’s no time to be giving raises.

“It stinks, to put it mildly, that the upper administrators are going to get big pay increases,” he said. “The folks we represent are making, on average, about $30,000 a year.”

Thirty grand is always too much. A hundred and fifty grand somehow never is.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or

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