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$8 million deficit to trigger Community Colleges of Spokane cutbacks

Christine Johnson is the chancellor of the Community Colleges of Spokane, photographed in her office Wednesday, April 27, 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Christine Johnson is the chancellor of the Community Colleges of Spokane, photographed in her office Wednesday, April 27, 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Community Colleges of Spokane will eliminate some staff and faculty positions starting in the fall in response to an $8 million deficit, which Chancellor Christine Johnson blamed partially on major glitches caused by the flawed rollout of a new software system.

“We are definitely anticipating a cut,” Johnson said. “It’s difficult and nobody likes this part of the job.”

Although the details haven’t been worked out, some faculty and staff positions will be eliminated at Spokane Falls Community College, Spokane Community College and the CCS district office. Classes and programs could also be eliminated, Johnson said. There will be a 10 percent reduction across the board, she said.

“Mostly I will try not to cut instruction or student support,” said SFCC President Janet Gullickson. “So we will have to focus on other functions.”

Gullickson described the deficit as a “complicated, perfect storm of factors” mostly out of the control of college administrators.

First, enrollment fell 2 percent across the district. Johnson said that is partially due to a recovering economy, which generally means lower community college enrollment.

But she also attributed the enrollment decrease to software glitches caused by the implementation of the ctcLink software – a $100 million system for all of the state’s community colleges that was introduced first in Spokane and Tacoma.

“We’ve had a new IT system that is being implemented, and unfortunately we’ve had some serious glitches,” she said, adding that those problems have affected students’ financial aid and enrollment status, leading to frustration and in some cases, withdrawal from school.

CtcLink is designed to tie together most financial, student scheduling and employee functions at the community colleges throughout the state. Community college staff and administrators at the two test sites urged the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges to delay launching the system last summer, saying it wasn’t ready. From the beginning, the software was full of bugs: some students couldn’t register for classes, some couldn’t get financial aid, while others got too much financial aid and some personal information were not secure. Some employees weren’t paid and the accounting functions weren’t working.

Statewide, the delays, fixes and overtime to troubleshoot the software system could add $10 million to the cost of the project, Washington legislators were told in January.

At CCS, the software implementation could cost $1.3 million in staffing, much of that spent on overtime, Johnson said. Those additional costs stretched already thin resources.

Community Colleges of Spokane asked the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges for help with the additional staffing costs. Spokeswoman Laura McDowell said the board hasn’t decided whether to provide any funds.

“That was not expected,” Johnson said. “We hadn’t planned for that.”

A change in how the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges distributes money also is affecting CCS’s finances. The allocation change funnels more money toward specific high-need programs, adult basic education and changes how much money schools will receive based on student performance. Johnson said the overall effect of these changes is to provide more money for smaller colleges.

“I have to say the new formula that was adopted basically favors smaller colleges,” Johnson said. “The assumption is that when you are bigger you can absorb cuts better.”

The final factor, Johnson said, is a class action lawsuit filed in 2006 on behalf of state employees wrongly omitted from state employer-paid health insurance. The settlement required the state pay $80 million. Of that, the 34 state community colleges had to divvy up $13.4 million in settlement costs.

McDowell said these factors, combined with a general lack of financial support for community colleges, are stretching school resources across the state.

“Our community college system is really being starved by the Legislature,” she said. “We are seeing levels of funding that precede the recession in terms of state support.”

SCC President Ryan Carstens said cuts would be made strategically, with an eye toward minimizing the impact on students.

“It is frustrating to see that some decisions will not be as favorable for our district,” he said. “But we are a statewide system so we have to work with those decisions.”

Gullickson said six SFCC buildings will be closed during the summer to save on energy costs. Additionally, she said SFCC won’t fill a vice president opening. Staff and faculty at SFCC understand that the cuts are largely out of the college’s control, although that doesn’t make it any easier, she said.

“I can tell you even having the conversation is hard,” Gullickson said. “It’s hard for people who are worried about their colleagues not having jobs.”

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