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Originally published Tuesday, July 19, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Time for community colleges to step up for pay equity

It'S no secret that our state's community and technical colleges deliver high-quality education critical to expanding our work force, in...

Special to The Times

IT'S no secret that our state's community and technical colleges deliver high-quality education critical to expanding our work force, in particular in high-demand fields such as nursing.

A hidden fact in that success is that colleges depend on an overly high ratio of part-time faculty. In fact, over 75 percent of the instructors in Washington's community and technical colleges are part-timers.

Yet, these faculty members don't have job security for more than a few months at a time, are given inadequate or no office space to meet with students, have limited access to educational-support systems, and are paid very low salaries.

The good news is that the Legislature, with advocacy from faculty union representatives, made a long-term commitment to improve the situation. In recent years, the state made health and retirement benefits more equitable and gave part-timers access to sick leave, unemployment benefits and reasonable pay rates.

However, funds to close the salary gap between full- and part-time faculty suffered during the recent economic crisis. Although progress was made from 1997 through 2003, there has been little improvement since then. Part-time faculty still earn on average 57 percent of what full-time faculty earn for teaching the same class. At the rate we are going, part-time faculty will not have salary equity for 20 to 30 years, when the original goal in 1996 was 10 years.

Despite the tight budget this year, the Legislature set aside $4.5 million for equity, in addition to a cost-of-living increase. Then, trying to leverage its investment, it allowed colleges to use local revenues to match that amount, for a total of $10 million, the highest amount available for several years.

College administrators decry the situation of part-time faculty but have been hamstrung in addressing it locally because of how salary funds are controlled by the Legislature. If the Legislature doesn't specifically allocate salary increases for faculty, the colleges cannot grant an increase, even if local funds from tuition and other sources are available.

But this year, the Legislature has given colleges the right to use local resources to match state allocations. Whether a college makes the match will be a test of the administration's commitment to fairness.

Admittedly, the college funding crisis is not over. But Gov. Christine Gregoire and the Legislature kept their promise to do no more harm to higher education. In previous bienniums, tuition increases simply covered cuts in state funding. For example, a 12-percent tuition increase generated only enough income for the colleges to cover a parallel 3-percent cut. The colleges couldn't quite stay in place, though, because as their income stayed the same, their costs rose.

This year, the tuition increases aren't paralleled by an equally large cut in state funds. These increases, combined with slightly more generous funding for new access slots, will generate new money for the colleges.

Some administrators are resisting making the salary match because they say college enrollments are down. But with a few exceptions, what is really down are overenrollments — those nonstate-funded slots that colleges opened to meet the access demands of the past six years. Even though the overenrollments seemed to add more money to a college budget, the costs of delivering this education wiped out any significant financial advantage they may have seemed to provide.

More students will demand access in coming years, but the goal of the Legislature and the governor is to fund those slots rather than let another overenrollment crisis develop. Enrollments should not be a barrier to using local funds for the equity match.

So now is the time for the colleges to pitch in on part-time equity. South Puget Sound College in Olympia was the first to step forward and do the right thing by matching the state on equity increases.

We will watch to see whether the other 33 community and technical colleges will follow its lead.

Sandra Schroeder is president of AFT Washington (American Federation of Teachers), based in Tukwila.

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