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Sierra College finds millions in unanticipated dollars

By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald Correspondent
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Higher revenue and less spending led to millions of unanticipated dollars in Sierra College’s coffers this year. Reeling by unexpected changes to the Sierra College operating budget, the teachers’ union wants pay cuts reversed and is calling for an outside auditor to look at the books. An agreement made over a year ago saw campus bargaining groups accepting cuts. In exchange, the administration was to draw down a certain amount of cash reserves to balance the budget. Sierra College Faculty Association President Jay Hester said that didn’t happen and now an air of mistrust is brewing. “The reason there is so much anger is the sense that the staff is making sacrifices and part of the deal was that the district would draw down a certain amount of reserves – 12.2 percent of reserves instead of the projected 9 percent,” Hester said. That minor percentage amounts to millions of dollars that could have lessened the recessionary impact on teachers salaries, Hester said. “I don’t think it is nefarious,”Hester said. “It is really poor forecasting.” That’s one reason the union wants an outside auditor to look at the books. Hester said the administration should have realized how cuts would have affected the bottom line. The college has experienced layoffs, 5 percent across-the-board pay cuts for full-time teachers, 2 percent for part-time professors and furloughs. Between 500-800 classes were also eliminated. To make things worse, the state raised tuition from $20 to $26 per credit hour. Third-year Sierra College student Andrew Nelson said even though he pays more out of pocket for his education and twice as much for parking on campus, he believes all the parties involved deserve a C+. “The cuts that the teachers took to help the campus survive should be repudiated,” Nelson said. “It should go back to the faculty.” Matt Archer, a full-time anthropology professor, took a 5 percent pay cut last year. His classes have been cut and he has to fit as many kids into the remaining classes as he can. He admits the whole budget ups and downs have taken its toll. “The stress level around here is higher than normal,” Archer said. Sierra College President Dr. Leo Chavez said there are reasons the budget projections came out this way. “We did spend less money than we anticipated,” Chavez said. “In addition, our revenue was somewhat higher than we had predicted. The two acting in concert led to the roughly $4 million change in our anticipated draw on reserves. In other words, we spent about $2 million less than we anticipated,” Now teachers hope a penny saved is a penny earned for them. “We understand to give the money back without any sense of what caused this problem might be a bit hasty,” Hester said. “But there is a sense that they owe it to staff to tell them what’s going on here. We want to know what happened.” The teachers union is willing to wait until March to let the numbers become more clear, but there is a number they’re hoping the board will agree to consider at the Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday afternoon. “If the reserves come back at 10.6 percent or above we want to return that money,” Hester said. Chavez said it is not going to be simple. “This year’s budget is just balanced and it contains some rather optimistic assumptions about revenue,” Chavez said. “If we had not taken the steps we did, we could have a multi-million operating deficit in this year’s budget.” Chavez said the big “X” factor is what the state will do whenever a state budget compromise happens. Right now, the Sierra College budget deficit stands at about $800,000, according to Chavez.