By Gene Thompson
On Sept. 14 the Board of Trustees (BoT) unanimously approved Chancellor David Martin’s 2023-24 budget. It wasn’t easy.
Trustee Susan Solomon presented a meticulously prepared amendment to the language on pages 55-56 in what she called “the budget book.” She said her amendment more accurately described a BoT vote in 2020 approving an Other Post Employment Benefits (OPEB) funding plan.
According to Solomon’s amended language the budget book would specify that the 2020 vote called for “employer contributions in the amount of 1% of payroll” each year until full funding was achieved. The administration’s text emphasized a timeline where full funding would be achieved by 2046. Solomon also advocated deleting a chart in the budget book that likewise stressed a timeline culminating in 2046, rather than what she said was the intention of the vote: to specify the 1% figure, the minimum payment requirement.
Solomon said the 2020 vote did not preclude exceeding the 1% minimum if financial conditions permitted a greater contribution, but in her opinion that is not the case because “the budget we’re about to vote on does not include salary increases for faculty and staff even though we are at the bargaining table with AFT and SEIU and a proposal from us is on the table for a salary increase. The money has to come from somewhere. We have to have a budget that reflects our values and that honors our commitments.”
Solomon quoted a public-comment speaker: “If in fact there is no money in this budget for salary increases we are in bargaining headed for impasse at a time when we’re going into accreditation.”
Solomon continued, “This college runs on the labor of the people who work here and they haven’t seen a raise in a very long time.”
Vice President Anita Martinez supported Solomon’s amendment, observing that the chart was not included in the 2020 approval and the current board had not seen it before.
Chancellor David Martin said the chart was valuable evidence of fiscal responsibility to present to the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) when its peer review team arrives on Oct. 2 to assess the college’s adherence to its standards. He said, “The intent of providing that schedule would be to provide a very sound and very strong accreditation evidence that this district has an approved plan and is sticking to the plan and that plan addresses our liability in a meaningful way. We brought forth the funding schedule because we think it would be very good accreditation evidence to hopefully get us off of any type of OPEB sanction concerns.”
After extensive back and forth discussion primarily focused on how the ACCJC might react to the proposed changes, the board approved Solomon’s amendments.
Trustees Aliya Chisti and Shanell Williams, along with Vice President Martinez asked questions about the availability of unallocated funds to support student equity.
Martinez then proposed changes to the Budget Criteria (Guiding Principles) and Assumptions section of the document. During the discussion of Martinez’s proposed changes Trustee Vick Chung described a budget as a “moral document” and lamented that there had not been more participatory governance in the development of the numbers. “We should meet our contractual obligations,” Chung said, “but we should be putting our values first.”
But Trustee Chisti objected that the changes proposed by Martinez and Chung might violate the board policy of ceding executive authority to the chancellor.
Recognizing that the 30-minute time slot allowed for the budget discussion was inadequate, President Alan Wong recessed to allow a scheduled meeting of the student success committee to proceed, with the budget approval meeting to resume one hour later.
When the meeting resumed, Chisti continued her warning that the trustees’ detailed objections impinged on the chancellor’s prerogatives. But when Vice President Martinez asked for the relevant regulations to be displayed, all agreed that they did not prohibit the board from making the kind of detailed changes she had suggested.
Chisti asked Vice Chancellor of Finance John al-Amin whether the level of questioning and the prescriptive language put forth by the trustees was unusual in his experience examining the guidelines and assumptions section of budgets. He said it was and cautioned the budget was “a final plan that allows us to continue to do the business of the district.” He reminded the trustees that the ACCJC might not tolerate a budget that included some of the revisions they were suggesting.
Trustee Solomon noted that in the recent past a lack of attention to detail had caused harmful consequences, and that history made the trustees reluctant to approve the budget without careful inspection.
Chisti asked if it might be possible to broaden the language of some sections in a way that would allow the trustees to pass this budget but allow some flexibility to accommodate possible increases in salaries, since unions, most conspicuously AFT 2121, the faculty union, are still negotiating contracts.
But Wong, Solomon and Martinez insisted detailed examination was needed, and Chung said there should have been a more robust discussion prior to approval.
One specific item called into question by Solomon was the allocation of $4 million to OPEB. But the chancellor seemed disinclined to make changes, stating, “The budget before you is the chancellor’s recommendation.”
Solomon, Chung and Martinez pressed the idea of creating holding places in the budget by reducing the amount designated for capital projects, which would temporarily free up funds that might be needed for raises.
Solomon asked al-Amin if the budget allocated any money for raises. He appeared uncomfortable, then answered with a non-sequitur, to which Martinez replied, “Then the answer must be ‘no.’”
Martinez also asked if the budget made any allocation for rehiring the teachers laid off in 2022. The BoT approved a resolution in July calling for the teachers to be rehired in the wake of severely impacted classes. The chancellor said there was no such allocation, adding, “Those funds will have to be in next year’s budget.”
The budget was put to a vote and passed unanimously.