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2011 June 28 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Wash. Budget Cuts Trim College Classes that Lead to Jobs

SEATTLE (AP) — When it comes to cutting millions of dollars out of budgets for state community and technical colleges this spring, perhaps the most vexing issue is that the very programs that could kick-start new careers won’t be available for all the students who want to enroll.

The Legislature last month sliced $84 million from the budgets for the state’s two-year schools for the next biennium, while authorizing 12 percent-a-year tuition increases over that span.

Even before the cutbacks, classes at many of the state’s community and technical schools had waitlists. Now, in the search for ways to trim further, it’s becoming likely that those waiting lists will grow still longer as classes are cut from the schedule. And some programs will be phased out altogether.

“The employment needs are there,” said Steve Hanson, president of Renton Technical College. “The jobs are going to be there. That’s what’s so frustrating.”

The Renton college’s nursing program is so popular that students already are admitted by lottery, so some don’t get in.

At South Seattle Community College, the aviation program is full for the fall quarter. The school’s popular culinary and wine programs have waitlists for the summer quarter. There are even waiting lists for online classes.

“Unfortunately, time is our enemy,” said Jill Wakefield, chancellor of Seattle Community Colleges “If you have lost your job, you don’t have a year to wait to get into a program.”

Seattle Central Community College has proposed eliminating nine programs, including apparel design, and interpreter training. Some are the only programs of their kind in the state.

Yet, there’s ample demand for students who finish some of these programs.

“I haven’t even graduated yet, and already I have a job,” said Milli Miniti-Jigamian, who is studying opticianry and will earn her degree in June 2012. “This (program) gets you in the field right away.”

All the students in Renton’s precision-machining program have job offers, Hanson said.

Even during the worst of the recession, about 80 percent of graduates from Seattle Community Colleges found jobs after they finished their training, Wakefield said.

Since 2009, the funding shortfall created by the recession has caused the state’s 34 community and technical colleges to close programs and courses that were not completely filled, said Charlie Earl, executive director of the State Board of Community and Technical Colleges (SBCTC).

Now, the schools will need to slice much deeper.

“They will be cutting sections they could fill, or overfill,” Earl said. The cuts will include programs in health care, business and manufacturing — “areas where we know there are employment possibilities in the future.”

Among the hardest hit will be the professional and technical training courses — programs more expensive to deliver, because they have a lower student-to-faculty ratio and often require training equipment, Earl said.

Colleges also might be forced to trim basic-skills classes, which allow students to complete their GED, take English as a second language or prepare for college with extra work in basic academics.

“In my 18 years, we’ve had plenty of times when we’ve had a little budget cut here, a little budget cut there,” said Karen Strickland, a former community college teacher who now leads the Seattle chapter of the American Federation of Teachers. But this time, the cuts “are having a much deeper and broader impact.”

In a news conference and rally at Seattle Central, Strickland urged students and faculty to call their legislators and tell them how the schools are being affected. “They need to hear what pain this budget is causing,” Strickland said.

Strickland said the schools’ importance to their communities goes beyond the role as job-training center.

According to a study commissioned this year by the SBCTC, community colleges contribute $11 billion a year to the state’s economy. The schools generate more than $100 million in added tax revenues annually, the study says, and for every state dollar invested in the schools, $1.70 in tax revenues are returned to the state.

Not every community or technical college will be affected by cuts to the same level. Some schools will be able to tap into reserve funds, postponing some cuts. Others have found federal or private grants to make up some of the shortfall.

And most schools already have reorganized programs or cut administrative positions to help dampen the effect on students.

For example, Renton Technical College will use reserve funds to get through the end of this year. Seattle’s three community colleges — North, South and Central — have reorganized administrative roles, cut about 100 positions, reduced travel and enlarged some classes.

One of the nine programs on Seattle Central’s list of proposed cutbacks is its 65-year-old apparel-design program, which trains students in the design and manufacture of clothing. Graduates go on to design for Nordstrom, Cutter & Buck and REI, among others, said Camila Sigelmann, coordinator of the program.

“It’s the greatest program nobody knows about,” student Cielle Miller said. She started her training at a private fashion academy in Italy, “and it was nowhere near as good as this.”

If programs are eliminated, students already enrolled will be able to finish, said Wakefield. Not every program on the list will be eliminated, and the school is looking for alternative ways to fund them. A final decision will be made by mid-June.

The proposed tuition increases also are a concern. Hanson, of Renton Technical College, said some students will have to take out larger student loans, leaving them in debt after they graduate.

Others may not be able to attend anymore. Under the proposed increase, tuition for full-time students would jump from about $3,100 a year now to $3,800 by 2013.

Earl and Hanson both advise students planning to attend a community college this fall to register as early as possible to avoid getting closed out of a class they need.

“For anybody who’s interested: Go early,” Earl said. “You don’t want to wait until the first week of school.”

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