City College and its 'Trombone' Debate

A contractual footnote known as the ‘Trombone Clause’ has caused CCSF and its teachers union to move off-key

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    NEWSLETTERS

    City College of San Francisco has until March 15 to show an accreditation commission it can survive long term. The college is considering an involuntary wage cut for teachers. NBC Bay Area's Sam Brock looks into the issue. (Published Wednesday, Jan 23, 2013)

    You might expect to find a trombone at the center of a jazz performance, or humming along with the rest of the brass instruments in the school band.

    But at the heart of the debate over trimming funds at endangered City College of San Francisco?

    That elevation of the trombone might take the average Bay Area resident off-guard, but in fact the shiny musical instrument finds itself mired in the eye of the storm.

    To be factually correct, it’s actually the ‘Trombone Clause’ that has caused a stir recently at CCSF.

    As City College officials look at ways to trim their costs and pay structure, they have cited the Trombone Clause as justification for unilaterally imposing wage reductions on the CCSF Federation of Teachers, at least for the 2012-13 budget. 

    The union has not consented to the cuts.

    “The Trombone Clause says that in good times, when we have good budgets from the state and better economics, we can share that largess with our employees,” said Larry Kamer, spokesperson for CCSF. “But it retracts in bad times, which is where we are now. And that’s our view.”

    The American Federation of Teachers, for its part, agrees that the Trombone Clause gives the college certain latitude to recoup money lost by state funding cuts. But there are preconditions to be met, says President Alisa Messer, and thus far the college has not satisfied those standards.

    “The circumstances are when the college receives a mid-year cut in state funding,” Messer said. “So if the college loses funds unexpectedly during the year they can come back and take back some of the wages.”

    But here’s where the plot thickens.

    The state reduced its funding last year, but the 2013-14 budget has not yet been set.

    Nonetheless, the City College has imposed mandatory reductions on teachers and staff for the remainder of the school year. The cuts equal 4.4 percent, but because they are being levied in only half a year, it’s more like receiving a 9 percent reduction.

    “We are hearing from faculty that they are moving out of their homes and apartments to move in with parents,” Messer said. “And we’re hearing from a substantial number of faculty who are choosing to apply for jobs in other places at this point.”

    The AFT has filed a grievance and an unfair labor practice charge, but the fate of those actions likely  won’t be determined for months. 

    A former California Supreme Court judge and one of the most experienced labor law experts in the state, Professor Joseph Grodin of UC Hastings, told NBC Bay Area Tuesday that examining the language of labor contracts is anything but simple.

    “The arbitrator will have to decide what the language means, and if you’re asking me to predict how the arbitrator will decide, sorry I can’t do that,” Grodin said.

    But the entire discussion prompts a more important question: Is a decision by the Public Employment Relations Board to pursue a settlement, or even adjudication, relevant?

    The two sides are arguing over a 5 percent reduction in wages moving forward, with expected savings in the $4-million to $5-million range.

    Furthermore, over the last four years, the AFT has agreed to salary cuts and freezes that have saved the college some $13 million.

    But the problem is much larger than the current discussion.

    According to CCSF, about 90 percent of its budget is devoted to employee compensation and benefits. That’s not only the top figure in the state, but it’s also a focal point of the Accreditation Commission, which singled out CCSF’s pay structure as its single largest hurdle.

    The college has until March 15 to demonstrate to the Commission its long-term viability, and a large part of that process is corralling a hefty pay and benefit package. 

    Passage of Proposition A, a parcel tax that will deliver $16 million a year to CCSF starting in December, may ultimately offset some of the wage cuts.

    The teachers union and the college are also at odds over the use of those funds. 

    Examination of the total picture, however, begs a rather acute conclusion- that quibbling over $5 million a year in wages, and a few more million from Prop A revenues,
    when CCSF has a $185 million budget and major issues to address, seems like a quick recipe to sink the college and its quest for accreditation in March.  
     

    CORRECTION: In the video above, 90 percent of the college budget refers to employee benefits and compensation, not just the faculty pay and benefits.