OPINION: Seattle Colleges in Crisis, But Harmful Budget Cuts Not the Answer

by Michael Reagan

Seattle Colleges District, the three-campus community college system for the City of Seattle, has been a flagship of professional, technical, and academic transfer instruction since 1970. Typically, during years of high enrollment — often when high unemployment pushes people to learn new skills, become certified, or complete a degree — North, Central, and South Seattle Colleges have collectively served over 45,000 students annually. The District’s “open-door” admissions policy welcomes students with all kinds of needs. Students of color comprise 56% of the student body at Central College, 40% at South Seattle College, and 36% at North Seattle College. But the combined pandemic and economic downturn has created a financial crisis across the district. 

Starting this summer, Seattle Colleges has made damaging cuts to programs and staff across the district. Staff have been furloughed, making fall quarter registration and financial aid difficult for students. Programs that serve working-class Seattle like Culinary Arts, and Parent Education are on the chopping block. These types of cuts hurt the most vulnerable students and communities in Seattle the hardest. What is more, Governor Jay Inslee and the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges have not even mandated across the board cuts yet. Working-class students and communities of color are already struggling to navigate the new reality of pandemic and economic losses. By not prioritizing student instruction, unnecessary budget cuts will create additional harm for these communities. 

It is true that Seattle Colleges themselves are facing, and will continue to face, significant revenue loss in the future. Between sales tax shortfalls from the coronavirus and declining international student enrollments, the District is expecting a $20 million budget shortfall. But the college administration of Chancellor Shouan Pan plans further cuts to instruction to make up the difference. According to the District’s audited financial statements, six years ago, the District spent 51% of its budget on instruction and by 2018 instruction funding fell to 41% of the budget. Now, Seattle Central has announced that 75% of 2020–2021 anticipated cuts should come from instruction. If North and South take the same path, instruction could fall to barely a third of the District’s operating revenue. 

Counter Convocation to protest Seattle Colleges program cuts and layoffs (photo: Susan Fried)

These kinds of budget decisions could result in harmfully consolidating or reducing whole programs that serve vulnerable students and communities like Culinary Arts, Parent Education, and Physical Education. Parent Education, for instance, has historically been an essential community partnership with multiple co-op preschools which support families and communities of color. Meanwhile, academic transfer courses are run only if enrollment is deemed sufficient while students frantically waitlist for sections they need to graduate. As a history instructor at Seattle Central, this quarter I am overwhelmed with waitlisted students being denied the courses they need for lack of available classes. Students of color are particularly hard hit since they may register later due to cash flow issues and then have fewer course options.

On September 23, 2020, rank and file members of the three unions — American Federation of Teachers Seattle, Locals 1789 (faculty) and 6550 (professional staff) and Washington Federation of State Employees 304 — held a counter convocation to call upon the chancellor, Board of Trustees, and administration to: 

  • Stop program cuts and layoffs!
  • Cut upper administration, not those directly serving students!
  • Adopt worker-led decision making process
  • Free tuition for students 
  • Enact progressive taxes to fully fund our colleges

Students, faculty, and staff attended the event via Zoom and in person (masked with social distancing). Astro Pittman, editor of the Seattle Collegian student newspaper, spoke eloquently about what is at stake in terms of student access and quality of education. They said that while Seattle Central has been “one of the most positively impactful experiences I have ever had in my life,” that the District is not living up to its values with planned cuts. Anna Hackman, Humanities faculty, urged people to unite across unions and to voice their concerns about the lack of transparency in making budget decisions. The spirited rally marched to the District office and left posters expressing the changes needed. Now, rank and file faculty groups and unions are planning next steps.

There are no easy answers to a financial crisis, but dramatic cuts to instruction, including successful programs, academic coursework, and the support staff to make that possible, will only make matters worse. Greater reinvestment in colleges from the state legislature, as well as federal economic stimulus and COVID relief funds would make a difference. In the meantime, the District needs to prioritize and increase the proportion of the district budget for instruction. College administrators should remember their role as educators and return the District to its roots as community colleges that serve students, People of Color, and marginalized Seattle communities first.

Michael Reagan is adjunct history faculty at Seattle Central College and the University of Washington. He is a member of the faculty union, AFT 1789, and author of the forthcoming book Intersectional Class Struggle: Theory and Practice with AK Press in 2021. Find him on Twitter: @reaganrevoltion.

Featured image by Susan Fried.

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