By Les Zaitz

The Enterprise

ONTARIO – The labor strife at Treasure Valley Community College can’t be understood unless you chew on the very dry bone called “government budget.”

At the heart of the fight is money.

Instructors want more for their work.

College officials say they can’t afford that.

The dispute has been brewing for years, and here’s where that dreaded phrase “government budget” comes in.

Unlike a personal budget, a government like the community college can’t spend more than it takes in. That’s the law.  At the end of each year, the college has to at least break even.

For years, the college was taking in more and more income. Year after year, the number of students plunking down tuition checks kept growing.

Until the 2010 school year.

For Treasure Valley Community College, that marked the end of the good old days – a time of peak enrollment, expanding classes, expanding pay, and expanding resources.

Since then, fewer and fewer students have enrolled.

As they went elsewhere, they took their tuition money with them.

In the 2010 school year, students paid $7.5 million in tuition and fees – nearly half all the money the college took in. Since then, enrollment has dropped every year. Last year, the college collected $5.9 million in tuition and fees – now roughly a third of the college’s total income.

The drop in students and payments wasn’t matched by an equal drop in expenses, according to college records.  The cost per full-time student in the heyday of 2010 was $4,357. Last year, the same full-time student cost the college $7,035.

Several factors drove that cost increase. Faculty not at the top of their tenure received automatic pay increases of 4.5 percent per year. Health insurance costs soared, and so did the college’s obligation for retirement costs through the Public Employee Retirement System.

College officials in recent years say they have cut some spending but those reductions “haven’t been enough,” according to Kevin Kimball, college vice president of administrative services.

Now, said Kimball, the fate of the college is on the line.

“We have to make changes to be able to have a viable institution,” he said. He compared the college to airlines that once flew planes that were only one-half to one-third full.

“That’s not sustainable,” he said.

College officials have taken steps they believe can save the college.

They saved money with one-time changes, such as retaining some salary money instead of paying it out because jobs were filled later than expected.

They are trying to forge a new contract with instructors that trims future pay raises and scales back pay so those teachers get full salary only for full classes.

Last week, college officials announced “retrenchment,” signaling their intention to cut six instructors and either save those wages or use the money to hire less-costly instructors to run popular classes.

Officials say they also have redoubled efforts to recruit students. Recruiters say they see promising interest among high school students.

The Treasure Valley Education Association, the union representing instructors, insists the college doesn’t face a financial problem.  And if it does, the union said, that’s because college officials have been expanding what they spend on administrators and other overhead in a “mismanagement of enrollment and finances.”

Union officials said the college’s actual spending and income – not its budgeted figures – show that spending for instruction has increased about 7 percent since the 2010 class year and student support costs have gone up 8 percent. In comparison, the union numbers show, the costs for President Dana Young’s office have gone up about 17 percent. College officials said costs of her office in fact had increased about 14 percent in that time.

The union also has been publicly sharing a chart comparing Treasure Valley Community College to other community colleges in Oregon, attributing the information to state numbers. The figures say about 46 percent of Treasure Valley’s spending in the 2015 school year went for instruction and instructional support. The average for Oregon’s other community colleges: 59 percent. College officials disputed that but couldn’t immediately p