$2.5 million in Sierra pay cuts reversed

By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald Correspondent
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In an overwhelming show of support, the Sierra College Board of Trustees unanimously voted Tuesday to reverse last year’s controversial pay cuts. The school’s bargaining groups still have to ink a memorandum of understanding and get it approved by the board before any new cash is spotted in pay slips. The pay increase is expected to be retroactive from July, according to the board discussion. Even so, Sierra College President Leo Chavez cautioned the board about projections. “We’re not swimming in money,” Chavez said. “We’re going to put in place structural reforms for better projections.” Last week, public outcry over the budget surprise forced Sierra’s bargaining groups, called the Omni Party, to draft a resolution for the board that would have recommended the pay cuts be reinstated only after the college’s cash reserves hit a certain percentage by March of next year. But a majority of the board had the opinion that waiting that long was distasteful. Trustee Barbara Vineyard said the money was needed now for people who are trying to pay rent or their son’s college tuition, for example. Trustee Bill Martin related to a football game where the call on the field is reviewed and reversed on the spot. “A bad call was made and we need to take a leadership role,” Martin said. Trustee Scott Leslie said it was only fair to give the across-the-board cuts back to everyone across the board. That includes the 5-percent cut for full-time faculty and 2-percent cut for part-time instructors. “We want to send a message,” Leslie said. Leslie peppered the support for the bargaining groups position if they continue to work with the board and times get tough again. During the lengthy discussion about finances, Chief Business Officer Doug Smith humbly fell on his sword. “I am truly sorry. It happened on my watch,” Smith said. “Hopefully my pencil will get sharper.” Smith explained that when updates came in as early as June, he sat on the information despite intense interest born out of the controversial cuts. “I had no real comprehension,” Smith said of the affects of the cuts. “I need to understand.” Smith said he was surprised individual faculty members were giving back unused funds from their departments in droves — something that amounted to nearly $1 million is savings among other savings in the budget. The Omni Party, which was reeling from the mistrust the budget surprise created, demanded an outside auditor be provided. That’s something the board wrestled with, but Chavez ultimately promised to give everyone peace of mind. “Talk is cheap, but we need to have action to regain confidence,“ Chavez said. “If you want an audit, we’ll get you an audit.” The compromise did not address the hundreds of class sections that were eliminated, parking and other fees that were raised or the faculty that was laid off last year. That’s something that bothered faculty member Steve Linthicum, who stands to gain a pay increase from the deal. “The cuts put a lot of part-timers out of work,” he told the board. “The people we laid off didn’t lose 5 percent of their salary, they lost 100 percent.” After the meeting, Jay Hester, Sierra College Faculty Association president and member of the Omni Party issued a brief statement. “Although the discussion was lengthy and certainly multifaceted, I believe that the interest of the board in trying to address the issue of the pay cuts prior to the March 30, 2011 deadline is one that faculty and staff generally, will certainly welcome. Now I think we can move forward and make that interest a reality for our members,” Hester said. Chavez reminded the board that there are still unknown financial factors that could be trouble later on, including potential cuts from the state to questionable projections on county property taxes that could affect the college’s bottom line.