A victory against cuts at SCCC

Darrin Hoop recounts how students, staff and faculty at Seattle Community Colleges came together to fight planned cutbacks.

Students are taking a stand against budget cuts all across the country (Chris Kocher)Students are taking a stand against budget cuts all across the country (Chris Kocher)

"THERE WILL be pain in this community college district." Those were the harsh words of Thomas Malone, chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Seattle Community College District on February 12.

Unfortunately for him, a coalition of students, staff and professors at Seattle Central Community College (SCCC), as well as supportive community members, formed a new group on campus, SCCC Against Cuts to Education (SCCC ACE), which led a spirited campaign to challenge the proposed cuts to classes.

And in a little over a month of organizing, we won an important victory, with a number of classes reinstated for the spring quarter.

Initially, the SCCC administration had planned to cut about 4 percent of classes (about 40 in all) this spring for a "savings" of around $200,000. A sizable proportion of the cuts--between 25 and 43 percent, according to various sources--was to come from the World Languages classes (mostly Spanish, Japanese, French and German).

These cuts were supposed to be just the beginning. According to an e-mail from SCCC President Mildred Ollée, more cuts could come in the fall with budget reductions potentially reaching $2.3 million in the next two years.

All of this is part of addressing an enormous $9.3 billion budget deficit facing Washington state. There's a $1.3 billion deficit in the present budget that runs through June, and another $8 billion deficit in the two-year budget ending June 2011.

Four-year schools like the University of Washington will face cuts of 11 percent, and two-year schools like SCCC of about 7 percent. If the cuts went unchallenged, the state schools would end up with about 10,500 fewer students than are presently enrolled.

Seeing that if these cuts weren't opposed immediately it would only set a precedent for further cuts next fall and from the real needs of students being denied a chance to take classes that would improve their chances of transferring to four-year universities, students and professors affected by the proposal to cut classes immediately sprang into action, realizing that the board hoped to establish a precedent for implementing their cost-cutting measures that they could return to in the fall.

World Languages students were concerned about getting the classes they needed to improve their chances of transferring into four-year institutions, and professors, members of the American Federation of Teachers Seattle Community Colleges Local 1789, would have lost teaching hours.

So the two groups made common cause and started organizing in their classes, circulating petitions for students to sign in order to show that there was in fact demand for the classes that were being cut. This organizing alone reinstated at least one class.

On February 12, more than 60 people showed up to the Board of Trustees meeting at North Seattle Community College to protest the class cuts. Then a group of students, spearheaded by the efforts of James Bichler and Marisa Tubbs, started a student grievance campaign at SCCC that resulted in more than 30 people crowding into the office of Lexie Evans, the Dean of Student Life and Engagement, to present their concerns on February 19.

The grievance was filed against three administrators most responsible for carrying out the cuts--SCCC President Mildred Ollée, Vice President Ron Hamberg and Dean of Social Sciences and Humanities Audrey Wright.

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A DAY before that, on February 18, about 10 students met to start SCCC ACE. We organized around four basic points of unity: No cuts to classes now or in the future, no tuition increases, no layoffs of staff or faculty, and transparency from school administrators.

Our first action was to circulate a broader petition against the class cuts. Dozens of students and staff, whether they were affected personally by the cuts or not, signed it in the next few weeks.

Then SCCC ACE organized an "unauthorized" forum on March 4 attended by more 50 people. Our request to hold the forum in the campus cafeteria during the day was denied, supposedly due to concerns about the use of "amplified sound," so instead, we held a speak-out without a bullhorn in the main hallway right next to the cafeteria.

After a few planned speeches, students and professors took turns speaking out about why they were against the cuts and how we needed to continue organizing to stop them. In response to this pressure, the administration held its own forum on March 9 where President Ollée attempted to justify the cuts.

Three days later, around 40 students, staff and professors rallied outside the Board of Trustees meeting. Students from SCCC ACE, the Urban Union, the International Socialist Organization, the Antiwar Collective and others spoke out against the cuts and made connections to the hundreds of billions spent on wars and bailouts for the rich.

We then proceeded to fill up the boardroom where the trustees were meeting. After allowing just six students and professors to speak, the board closed down discussion. Despite the peaceful nature of our protest, Ollée threatened to have security kick us out of the room.

For those who participated in this action, there was a sense of accomplishment about the incredible organizing we had done in only a month's time as well as lots of anger at the way the board had shut down discussion. It seemed as if the class cuts were being shoved down everyone's throats.

As our organizing efforts continued, it was announced in March that enrollment for the summer and fall 2009 quarters was already more than 7 percent above expectations. With the economy failing and unemployment rising, more people are deciding to return to school in the hopes of improving their chances of finding a job.

If the trend continues through June, the extra tuition collected by the administration will amount to an additional $1 million in the budget. Already, $700,000 of that money has been split between the three Seattle Community Colleges (North, South and Seattle Central).

While the full list of reinstated classes hasn't been released yet, we do know that at least six of the eight foreign language classes slated to be cut have been reinstated.

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FROM DAY one, the lack of transparency from the SCCC administration has provoked a lot of bitterness. Students found out their classes had been cut by looking through the spring quarter registration booklet. When they approached their professors to inquire about the missing classes, students found that the administration hadn't informed the professors of the cuts either.

It now seems evident that the administration planned to quietly cut the classes and hope that the short quarter system would compel students and professors to be resigned to the cuts.

The lesson learned is important for people all over the U.S. who are facing cuts to education and other important social services: A determined group of people can make a difference.

We started with a small core and then formed a coalition that included students, teachers, union officials and community members all working together. We organized a vocal, outward movement that included petitions, a student grievance campaign, public forums, rallies and actions at board meetings.

And we are still at the beginning of our organizing work. Vice President Ron Hamberg told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer after the March 12 board meeting that things are likely to get worse. "This is just the tip of the iceberg," he said. We hope to find a way to pull together students and staff from other colleges in the area to oppose the budget cuts on a statewide level.

One of the ways to address the budget shortfalls is an income tax on the richest people in Washington state, which we may discuss adding to our original four points of unity. Support for this idea is growing, and not just within the "left." On March 9, the Post-Intelligencer ran an editorial signed by people like Bill Gates Sr. and John Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, in favor of such a tax. As they put it:

We have the most regressive tax regime in the country. Middle-class and low-income families pay much more in taxes proportionally than the wealthy...We in King County live in the fourth wealthiest county per capita in the country. We have no excuse to prevent us from reforming our tax system to provide for high quality education for all of our children.

The city of Seattle has proposed a new $200 million jail at the same time that the Seattle school board voted to close five public schools and cut eight additional programs primarily affecting minority and working class families. There is a growing sense that we need to connect these different issues and mount an urgent struggle for change.

As student James Bichler put it in an e-mail to supporters after the victory at SCCC, "I would like to thank all that have been involved in our movement. We could not have done this without all of the people that have supported us by showing up to the Board of Trustees meetings, forums, organizing meetings and providing us with their verbal support."

It will take much more organizing like this to stop any future cuts. We hope this small, but important victory at SCCC can help inspire others around the country to organize against whatever cuts to social services they are facing.