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Hiring central to accreditation warning for California college

Last fall, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) downgraded its accreditation for Napa Valley College (NVC). According to the ACCJC, it flagged NVC because the college had overspent its budget for three consecutive years. Additionally, the accrediting agency noted that NVC’s cash reserves had shrunk because of its spending.

NVC is currently rated “at-risk,” which is the first of three progressively more serious accreditation flags. If the college accreditation continues to decline, the ACCJC could revoke the institution’s accreditation. The ACCJC’s enhanced monitoring process requires a review of NVC’s fiscal condition in 2023.

Following the downgrade, administrators at NVC carefully scrutinized spending to correct the issues the accrediting agency flagged. In January, NVC released a self-evaluation plan that its administrators say will help the college adhere to its budget. One of the areas they specifically noted was NVC’s hiring practices.

Hiring became a central focus of the self-evaluation because administrators noted that they had continued to hire staff even though NVC’s enrollment had declined steadily for a decade. The pandemic has exacerbated the enrollment decline, leaving the college with fewer students to support NVC’s payroll.

Between 2017 and 2020, NVC’s annual average deficit was $1.8M. In addition, NVC’s books revealed underfunded pension obligations. The State of California has assigned a crisis management team to work with NVC to resolve its budget management issues. NVC’s review revealed its antiquated budget process, and its failure to revise annual budgets based on actual revenues and spending.

NVC’s Board of Trustees approved an early retirement plan in December. Eligible employees have until March 15 to take advantage of the program. The institution hopes that offering early retirement incentives will lessen the need for staff layoffs. This year, NVC expects to run a deficit of at least $1.1M.

Accreditation problems are the tip of the iceberg

This isn’t the first time NVC has gotten into financial trouble. The school also offered early retirements to more than 3 dozen faculty and staff after encountering financial trouble in 2010. Following those buyouts, NVC did not change its hiring practices to align with its enrollment. That approach created its current fiscal crisis.

There are a few interesting parallels at work between NVC and WCC. First, WCC has experienced significant growth in its administration. Anyone who knows anything about the executive administration of a mid-sized community college should be horrified by the number of Vice Presidents WCC has on its payroll. There is no comparably sized community college in the United States that has 13 Vice Presidents on staff. (Largely because there’s no real need for 13 Vice Presidents at a college of WCC’s size.) By itself, that says something. Why does WCC need 13 Vice Presidents? And if there is no demonstrable need for that many VPs, why does WCC have that many Vice Presidents?

The “Vice President issue” is a clear case of spending other people’s money. We have a largely non-resident administration that does not care how their hiring practices look because there is no accountability for their actions. WCC could hire 30 Vice Presidents, and no one on the Board of Trustees would blink.

Exactly how many Vice Presidents does it take to run a mid-sized (and shrinking) community college? What administrative deficits is WCC addressing by hiring additional Vice Presidents? Someone on the Board of Trustees needs to start asking some very pointed questions about why WCC needs more VPs that any other community college in the entire country.

Institutional health depends on adequate oversight

Another interesting point is that the staff growth at WCC in the past decade has been limited to the administration. The size of the bargaining groups is the same as (or smaller than) it was a decade ago. If the Administration can keep a hard lock on hiring in those groups, why can’t it manage its own size?

NVC is confronting the consequences of a decade of unrestricted hiring right now. Their accreditation is at stake. The State of California has limited NVC’s fiscal autonomy, and people are going to lose their jobs. And just so we’re clear, the layoffs won’t necessarily come from the “excess hires” accumulated in the last decade. The people who lose their jobs come at the expense of other people’s bad decision making and poor job performance. And other people’s failure to provide adequate oversight. And the Trustees’ willingness to ignore clear red flags.

Have any of the WCC Trustees asked about the long-term costs associated with unrestrained administrative hiring? Ever? The WCC Trustees’ failure to provide adequate oversight and demand accountability will come back to haunt us all.

Photo Credit: Jernej Furman , via Flickr