As federal and state education officials continue to rely on community colleges as a critical link in President Obama's plan to increase the national college graduation rate, NYSUT locals are using the bargaining table to help set the correct course for their members and the students they serve.
"Community colleges are under pressure to deliver quality education to a large influx of students," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. "So it's important for faculty to be involved, to ask the right questions and seek positive solutions."
Local leadership was critical when a number of SUNY community colleges were invited to apply for grants of up to $8 million each through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The applications are part of a $35 million effort by the foundation to identify community college students at risk of dropping out and improve graduation rates.
Several local leaders raised questions about the haste with which the applications had to be reviewed and signed by campus administrators and the campus local. Among them were Charles Clarke, president of the Monroe Community College Faculty Association; NYSUT Board member Andrew Sako, president of the Faculty Federation of Erie Community College; and Alison Doughtie, president of the Mohawk Valley Community College Professional Association.
"They wanted the heads of the unions to sign off on this without knowing what they were signing off on," Clarke said. Like his colleagues, Clarke wanted to make sure the grant would not impose any adverse work conditions on members or allow the Gates Foundation to dictate matters that should be handled only in negotiations.
"We were not going to change the terms and conditions of our contract for some outside funding source without having a seat at the table," Sako said.
The community colleges sought guidance from NYSUT, and had a chance to confer with Larry Gold, the AFT's national director of higher education, and among themselves at the Community College Conference in October. "NYSUT was great, as usual," Doughtie said.
The funding initiative "allows our locals to explore new and innovative ways to improve graduation rates at a time when community colleges are very attractive options for students looking to advance their education and careers," said NYSUT Vice President Kathleen Donahue.
Leaders came away with advice on questions to ask their campus presidents. In the end, seven community colleges applied for the grants; local leaders who felt it necessary to secure written pledges of protection for their contracts gained tips on obtaining that protection.
At Suffolk Community College, the Faculty Association, headed by NYSUT Board member Ellen Schuler Mauk, is in the first year of a new five-year agreement that will go to August 2015. When the Suffolk management proposed to the Faculty Association that they start negotiations a year early, the local agreed in the spirit of "seize the moment," Schuler Mauk recalled.
"Frankly, we had some leverage," she said. The Faculty Association had already agreed to increase class sizes by two students for one year to meet record-setting enrollments, a change that will continue under the new agreement. Management wanted to continue the class size agreement and, for its part, the Faculty Association wanted to protect its 70 untenured faculty against layoffs.
The result: A first-ever five-year agreement that allows step increases, freezes raises for two years, provides for modest increases in the last two years and protects untenured faculty against layoffs.