By John L. Braese
ONTARIO – Empty coffee pots and frazzled faces were the only things coming out of an 18-hour negotiating session between the Treasure Valley Community College administrators and faculty that ended in the pre-dawn hours Saturday.
The two sides couldn’t close a deal on a contract that would settle pay and avoid the prospect of the first strike in Oregon by community college instructors.
Instead, administrators and instructors were stumped Monday about what exactly happens next.
They have been negotiating off and on for a year, watching as the contract expired last summer, turning to state mediators in the fall for a so-far fruitless effort to strike a bargain.
Last week, the bargaining teams gathered in their “war rooms” at the college Science Building, opening their ninth round with a state mediator at 8 a.m. Friday.
Over the coming hours, a state mediator ran back and forth between the two with proposals. At certain points, the two sides would come together in a third room with the mediator controlling the conversation.
Just after 2:30 a.m. Saturday, the two sides called it quits.
The mediator’s effort to try a new tack to break the stalemate appears to have backfired.
“The mediator asked us to look at proposals from the other side’s point of view,” said Dana Young, college president. “We were asked to come up with a three-year proposal and the union was asked to come up with a two-year proposal. It just all fell apart then.”
Dennis Gill, an English instructor leading the negotiating team for the Treasure Valley Education Association, said Monday he’s “optimistic there is still a deal to be made.”
Young hopes the two sides can get together again soon, probably informally and without a mediator.
“The union gave us some new numbers that we need to take a look at,” Young said. “On the issue of class size, we are close to making that work. We are trying to realize some savings this year without making items retroactive.”
Gill said the faculty would consider that.
“It is the intent of the union to have an open dialogue with the college this week,” Gill said. “There is always talk of a strike, but we would prefer not to do that. Our intent is to stay at the table and find a solution. We want to do what is best for the students and avoid a strike.”
No such session had been scheduled as of Monday, however.
The college board was scheduled to meet Tuesday evening, too late for press time. But the board was expected to approve laying off six tenured instructors next fall in a process called “retrenchment.”
The board also was expected to meet behind closed doors in executive session to consider the status of the labor talks. A likely consideration would be another step in the labor process in which the college could decide on its own what a new labor contract would say.
College officials put that step – “imposing” the contract — on the table last month, signaling a resolve to bring down costs they say imperils the school.
The timing of the impasse couldn’t be worse.
Registration for the spring quarter begins Monday. Final exams to finish the current quarter are scheduled for the week of March 19 and the new one starts April 2.
If the college decides to impose without the union’s agreement, it must notify the union within five days.
The union then has a decision. The teachers can abide by the new contract or decide to take the historic step of a strike, one that will mark the first time in state history that a community college’s teachers have walked out and taken to the picket lines.
If the union decides to strike, it has to give college officials 10 days advance warning.
Money remains the issue.
Teachers want more cash for their families. Under the last contract, instructors who hadn’t hit the top of their pay scale earned automatic pay raises of 4.5 percent a year. Those at the top automatically got 2.5 percent raises.
College officials have proposed cutting that by at least half going forward.
“We realize we are asking for a lot of concessions and that is difficult,” Young said. “At some point, because of the time frame, we will need to go to unilateral implementation and that is not a good feeling for either side. I know both sides are discouraged, but remain hopeful.”
Gill said the instructors “are trying to find the pieces to make this work” and avoid a strike.
“I think we are closer than we have been on salaries and insurance costs,” said Gill. “On the issue of class size, I think we have an understanding how this all impacts the college. I think we will be able to compromise.”
Young has emphasized the college doesn’t have money for raises. Already facing a reported shortfall of $494,000 for the budget cycle that ends in this July, college officials say unexpected costs continue to eat into the budget.
Legal costs for the negotiations and mediation continue to mount. The state Employment Relations Board ordered the college to pay cost-of-living raises that the college stopped in the belief it wasn’t obligated to do so because the contract expired. The state ruled otherwise, a decision that is costing an estimated $32,000.
The college is now in the unenviable positon of attempting to persuade new students to come a campus with potentially fewer tenured staff, fewer programs, and a possible scenario of teachers walking Southwest 4th Avenue with picket signs.
The uncertainty is affecting students.
“I don’t think the negotiations are having a positive impact on the students by any means, said Olivia Johnson, 19, college student body president from Bend. “When the people who are teaching us are distracted and stressed out it doesn’t make for a very comfortable leaning environment.”
Johnson, in pre-med studies, said students have another worry.
“One of the major concerns from a lot of students is that our class time is being wasted due to all of the discussion about these issues,” said Johnson.
Dalli Roland, 19, a student from Payette, said the strife could prompt students to look elsewhere for their education.
“It’s a betrayal to the students and the staff when we are no longer getting what we came here for,” said Roland.
She is worried classes could be cancelled.
“I’m in the middle of foreign language and if they do away with that, I’ll have spent $311 on a book and hundreds more on the class just to feel like it was cut short and I was ripped off,” said Roland.
Roland said uncertainty is “affecting my classes, my teachers and my fellow classmates. It’s hard to listen to your teacher tell you that they are being laid off and that they will have to finish the term no matter what the outcome.”
The student leaders have scheduled special forum for 3 p.m. today in the Weese Building so students can hear directly from administrators and faculty and ask questions.
“We feel it is necessary for both sides to hear the students concerns,” said Johnson
Roland said students are hoping for the best.
“We’re all just gilding through right now, hoping we still have the same teachers to carry us through our subjects next term,” said Roland.