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After state budget cuts, Chemeketa tightens belt and braces for further cuts

Outside view of Chemeketa campus
Photo by Cecelia Love-Zhou

As the economic impact of the Coronavirus worsens, Chemeketa has to tighten its belt to continue operations. 

The state has announced massive budget cuts for public educational institutions like Chemeketa. The exact size of the cuts is not yet clear—the legislature will have the opportunity to adjust and finalize budget cuts in late summer—but Chemeketa faces a potential loss of more than $6 million in state funding. 

“I’ve been at the college for over 20 years, the initial numbers are the worst I’ve seen,” said Don Brase, the college’s executive dean for general education and transfer studies. “We were talking about a $6.3 million cut and it looks like it’s gonna be less than that. But the most I remember in one year was $3 million prior to this. So that’s twice as bad as what I’ve seen.” 

Even without finalization of the budget, Chemeketa has already begun implementing cost-saving initiatives. In addition to a hiring freeze, the college has laid off around 250 part-time hourly employees, including many student employees, offered an early-retirement incentive which around 25 employees have taken and sent temporary reduction in force notices to approximately 17 classified and exempt employees, according to Brase. He noted that the exact numbers are in flux as the college wraps up the spring term. 

The college has also made a move similar to Salem Keizer Public Schools and furloughed all classified employees on Fridays for the duration of the summer, a detail confirmed by Terry Rohse, president of the Classified Employee Association. 

These are just the initial phase of cuts. The harsher cuts will come once the legislature convenes to finalize the budget in late summer. 

“We are in this holding pattern until the legislature really convenes,” said Miriam Scharer, Chemeketa’s chief financial officer. “We may have to be impacted by a cut and then have it brought back or refunded.”

Regardless of the legislature’s exact figures, administrators and employees are anticipating further layoffs and cuts to programs. According to Scharer, the budget drafted prior to Coronavirus cuts allocated around 77 percent of funding to personnel costs. 

The college’s strategy for determining where to reduce staff is rooted in community need and the makeup of students’ transfer programs.

“We look at how many jobs are needed in our community, which is the tri-county area—Yamhill, Marion and Polk—and how many  jobs are needed in the future,” Brase said. He cites nursing, medical technology and computer science as examples of high demand fields. 

“So it’s often related to job numbers and then we’re also looking at transfer majors. And just in general there’s been more emphasis on STEM [science, technology, engineer and math] at this time,” Brase continued. 

These metrics will also influence which of the vacancies left by early-retirement faculty will be refilled and which positions will be cut. 

Enrollment across the board at Chemeketa has been declining. For the year to date, Scharer said, enrollment at Chemeketa is down 11 percent. These enrollment figures will also play a role in the college’s budget reduction from the state. 

But enrollment decreases are not new; Brase said enrollment has been on a downward trend for about seven years.

Due to poor enrollment figures and other economic struggles, Chemeketa’s available budget has been decreasing for years. The pandemic, Brase said, “has accelerated what we’ve already been doing.” 

Aside from potential cuts to faculty, Brase predicted the cuts will impact the college’s general ability to function and respond to needed improvements. 

“I think the support services for students are going to diminish and things that aren’t always as visible,” Brase said. “So it’s fewer maintenance people. Maybe the grass is a little higher and the boiler is out a little longer or that program that we really wanted to upgrade to make things easier for students to register is delayed another year. It’s things like that, which I think add up in their own way.”

There’s still many questions as to how much Chemeketa will have to cut, and the sense of precarity is not lost on those who currently have retained their jobs at the college. 

Chrys Tobey is an adjunct English instructor at Chemeketa. While Tobey said she has felt supported by her bosses, she also said these rounds of cuts feel more severe, due to both the financial outlook and the general concern around being non-tenured faculty.

“Everything feels different right now, it feels amplified, it feels worse,” Tobey said. The budget cuts are “worrisome and it adds to the anxiety of being an adjunct instructor.” 

There are glimmers of hope; administrators say summer enrollment is up and Brase said early indicators of fall enrollment are positive as well. 

Professors have seen this too. Tobey said she’s seen increased enrollment in her classes. 

“My classes are filling,” she said. “My summer class at Chemeketa filled faster than any I’ve had in nine years.” 

Those gains will not be enough to offset the incoming cuts, Brase said, even though they will have a positive impact for the college moving forward. 

“We’re adapting to the changes and that’s important,” Brase said. “We’ll have hard times, but I’m really optimistic for the future.” 

With additional reporting by Maren Brackman

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