JSC’s financial woes lead to staff job eliminations and hour reductions

JSC vacancy announcements in the Willey Library & Learning Center foyer.

Kayla Friedrich

JSC vacancy announcements in the Willey Library & Learning Center foyer.

On the wall in the foyer of Johnson State College’s Willey Library and Learning Center is a large bulletin board, packed with notices of everything from upcoming bands playing locally to apartments for rent, to job vacancies. JSC itself has five employment opportunities posted. Fiction specialist in the Writing and Literature Department, says one at the top: Contact Susan Rothschild with résumé. (That position has been filled.)

But there’s a problem: Susan Rothschild is no longer coordinator of human resources. She was one of five staff people whose positions were eliminated this week at the college as part of JSC administration’s initiative to fix a $1.5 million deficit.

Eliminating those positions and reducing work hours for eight others to 80 percent will “save the college approximately $450,000 in salaries and benefits” for the 2014-2015 fiscal year, according to a JSC press release by Director of Communications Services Deborah Bouton.

The other four whose positions were terminated are Custodian Emily Colvin, Data and Communications Specialist Kelly Ford, Desktop Support Specialist Tom Fordham, and Director of S.H.A.P.E. Facility Wendy Velander.

The reductions are in response to a dip in enrollment over the last few years, according to JSC President Barbara Murphy, who noted the elimination of staff positions come against the backdrop of continuing lack of fiscal support from the Vermont Legislature, which only exacerbates the situation.

Vermont ranks forty-ninth in the U.S. in terms of state appropriations for higher education.

Speaking to the college on April 5, Murphy acknowledged that “We are looking at, with near-certainty, some reductions in staffing,”

A week later staff found out whether their JSC-income was safe, scaled back, or simply gone.

“I realized that, as much as we can moderate our spending, I still needed to make up some of the gap by position elimination,” said Murphy, who noted she looked at places within the college that had not recently suffered a cut. “So, essentially, I looked broadly at the college, and tried to focus on positions that, however important to the college, had the least direct connection to academic programs or student services. I say that, believing that everyone at this college is really working to be part of the community and the climate to support student success, so [least direct connection] is never a tidy definition.”

The decision to eliminate some jobs was one she wished she didn’t have to make, said Murphy: “I think there are always other ways to balance budget, but […] in a place where almost two-thirds of the budget is salary and benefits, it felt like the only place I really could realize a significant savings. It’s with a lot of reluctance that I came to that decision.”

Staff members whose positions were scaled back to 80 percent time will still retain the same benefits as they had in their full-time positions. This includes Chemical Hygiene Officer Keith Kirchner, and all of the library staff; Jeff Angione, Raymond Brior, Pam Gelineau, Alice Godin, and Lisa Kent. Linda Kramer, instructional services librarian, was already working at 80 percent time, and was unaffected.

Coordinator of Arts on Campus Layla Bandar will lose her benefits as she is being scaled back from 83 percent to 41 percent time.

Few employees are prepared to talk “on the record” about the job eliminations just yet, particularly, as one noted, because they haven’t been assured that this will be the only round.

Although many employees said they were grateful to still have a job, the cuts sting.

Joe Farara, the library director and faculty librarian, had been given an option between eliminating a position or reducing work hours for everyone, and chose to keep all of his skilled staff. But for Brior, who said he’s been working two jobs for nearly a decade to make ends meet, it was still a financial blow.

“That hurts,” he said. “That’s an $8,000-plus-a-year pay cut. I’ve been here about seven years and this puts me back to almost my starting salary. [My family] just bought a new house, we sunk all our life-savings into it, I have three little kids, and one more on the way.”

Some of the cut jobs came as a surprise.

“With one retiring and one on medical leave in the maintenance and housekeeping department, I didn’t think they’d be hit with the cuts,” says Union Chair and Staff Assistant of The Humanities and Writing and Literature Departments Sandy Noyes, “but we did have a custodial position eliminated. If the maintenance worker on medical leave doesn’t come back, though, the custodian who was let go will get a call back.”

Depending on whether staff members were part of the Vermont State Employees Association Union, the United Professionals group, or no union, contracts had different stipulations regarding call backs. Basically though, if their former position opens back up within the next year or two, they have recall rights, and will be the first notified to fill the position.

Cut staff members will also still be eligible for a tuition waiver if they choose to take classes, and will receive their benefits until July or August 2014, depending on their contractual agreements.

Still, some staff questioned whether there were better alternatives to the cuts.

“I have heard the suggestion that we could have just furloughed everyone for a week or two, spread it across the college, and withheld a paycheck or two from everybody,” said Murphy. “I think that’s possible and could realize some money, but I think that because our enrollment has dropped slightly in the last two or three years, we needed to make a more permanent adjustment that would last longer than a year.”

Regardless of the layoffs, Murphy stated that they are still continuing with seven of the eight full-time faculty searches that began this spring, because the classes that were cut from next semester’s bulletin allowed them to fit those salaries into the budget. She said that it may not seem fair to cut staff while growing faculty, but looking back at how faculty retirements have outpaced replacement in recent years, she thought it was time to catch up.

Despite the administration’s focus on what it feels is most important to the education of its students – ambitious full-time hires, expanding programs and certificates offered, including a new partnership with Vermont Law School in the Pathways Program – some students have acknowledged being unsettled by the departure of familiar staff.

While the job cuts have rattled the college community, Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Tim Donovan expressed confidence in the JSC administration. “I know that President Murphy made these decisions after taking other actions to bring the college’s budget into balance,” said Donovan. “It takes strong leadership by a college president to value long-term health of a college over painful short-term consequences. While saddened for those affected, students should feel affirmed confidence in their college. I am confident that Johnson will continue to be a strong college providing excellent educational opportunity well into the future.”

Like Brior, Ford, one of the JSC staff to lose her job, has been working second jobs where she can to help cover home expenses. Without her JSC job, she loses 30 percent of her family income, but most alarmingly, the health insurance that has been covering her son’s asthma condition. In August she will have to apply to Vermont Health Connect and hope her family can afford coverage.

She wishes the entire college could have followed the library’s example.

“I would happily have taken a pay cut of 5 to 10 percent if it would have saved people’s jobs and I’ve talked to a lot of people who said they would have done the same thing,” she said. “Back to the democratic ideal, as I see it, is people looking out for the ones who can’t completely help themselves or don’t have as much pull in the system… and the higher-up people are the ones who work for the greater good of everyone…”

The reduction will also be hard on remaining staff, as the extra workload will be hard to assimilate. Ford said she felt some people may be afraid to speak their minds about the staff reductions openly for fear it would affect their jobs.

Despite the loss of her job, Ford said she doesn’t see anyone as a villain in this scenario.

Ford acknowledged that the administration brought in Department of Labor’s rapid response team to talk with the staff affected by the cuts. She said she thanked Murphy and Dean of Administration Sharron Scott for having them come because she was now aware of $5,000 to $10,000 per person available for re-training to help each find a new job as well as the option of drawing 26 weeks on unemployment while searching for additional income.

“… I can see it as a business. They’re going to make some cuts. I see that point, clearly,” she said. “But this is more a community, more of a family. It’s always felt like more of a family to me. And that’s not what you do in a family; it’s just not what you do.”