BTC students frustrated as faculty strike continues

THE BELLINGHAM HERALDSeptember 26, 2013 

BTC Picketing

Bellingham Technical College professors picket in hopes of getting pay raises on Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013 in Bellingham.

MATT MCDONALD — THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

BELLINGHAM — As a faculty strike at Bellingham Technical College entered its third day Thursday, Sept. 25, with no end in sight, some of the nearly 2,500 affected students are voicing their frustrations.

By law, the college can’t release financial aid monies to students until classes start — and college officials canceled classes for Friday. That has left some unable to pay rent or buy food, they say. Others are frustrated they had quit their jobs to start school, only to realize they could have earned more while classes have been canceled.

The students are caught in the middle of back-and-forth negotiations between Bellingham Education Association, the faculty union, and BTC's administration.

On Wednesday night, Sept. 25, BTC President Patricia McKeown responded to the BEA's latest proposals with a letter, stating that, while the school would continue to attend meetings to listen to the union's perspective, it would not respond to proposals while the faculty remains on strike.

The administration is not refusing to negotiate, said BTC spokeswoman Marni Saling Mayer.

"Our appeal is to have the faculty return to campus and get students in classrooms so they can collect financial aid," she said. "We want to bargain, we just want to bargain with the students not being harmed."

About 84 percent of the school's students receive some form of financial aid. Many are nontraditional, older students, some with families. The average age of a BTC student was 28 during the 2011-12 school year.

Tami Reynolds, a 32-year-old single mother of three, is an accounting student at BTC. In addition to providing for her 7- and 10-year-old boys, she cares for her 2-year-old daughter, who has a severe immune system deficiency. Due to her daughter's condition, Reynolds may not put her daughter in day care while she works.

"I rely fully on financial aid," Reynolds said. "I'm doing online courses because I have to be home with her. I did the accounting program in the hopes I could get a job in bookkeeping from home."

Reynolds has an agreement with her landlord that allows her to pay part of her rent at the start and end of each month. She told her landlord she'd pay the remainder for September by the 24th, the scheduled start of school, when she was blindsided by the strike.

"The 24th was going to be a busy day: pay bills, get gas, food, rent, diapers," Reynolds said. "I had to call them and say 'Sorry, I can't pay.'"

Reynolds was able to get a temporary loan from a relative to cover the overdue rent and late fees, but she's still waiting for a resolution.

Many classified, clerical, technical, instructional and retail support staff were absent from campus this week as they didn't cross picket lines. Members of their union, the Bellingham Education Support Team, voted to authorize a strike over their own labor contract but technically they are not out on strike. However, they are not reporting to work and many are picketing with the faculty.

William Pease, a 43-year-old firefighter for the forestry service, said he was disappointed to find out that not only were his classes cancelled, but virtually no one was on campus to talk to him about it.

"What makes me upset is the bookstore is open and the registrar is open - the school is open to take our money, but a lot of us are relying on aid and they aren't able to help us," Pease said.

The school administration told a different story.

"We've had the door to student services open every day for normal hours," Saling Mayer said. "We've pulled people from all over to help keep those offices open. The head of financial aid is sitting at the front desk."

Pease had to ask his parents for help paying rent. He normally would have been out this summer fighting forest fires, but took the time off to prepare for school.

"Nobody told us this was going to happen," he said. "If we would have seen this coming, we would have had a backup plan."

Pease and Reynolds are not alone in their frustrations.

-- Medical coding and billing student Starla Wolters, 24, a single mother of two, was waiting for a Department of Social and Health Services case worker to get back to her Thursday to find out if she'd get help with diapers and rent money while waiting for financial aid.

-- Jennifer Voigt, 23, an electronics program student who commutes to BTC from Oak Harbor, had to quit her job for school and wondered if she'd have to miss a wintertime wedding to make up for instructional days missed during the strike.

-- Stephanie Jensen, a second-year student, took to Facebook to say she was disheartened the faculty would complain about work load when many students work part time and attend BTC 40 hours a week.

John Palmer, a BEST executive board member picketing downtown Thursday, held a Washington Education Association sign reading "Quality, Respect, Fair Pay," as he explained the BEST board's stance.

"The administration has had the power to stop this long ago," Palmer said. "They could be bargaining now, but they're not."

Both sides have accused the other of walking out of negotiations.

"We didn't want this," said Steve Mudd, a BEA spokesman and BTC faculty member. "(The strike) is our only power."

When asked what faculty members thought about mounting student anger over the issue, Mudd said students should talk to the administration.

"Their energies would be well spent going directly to the Board of Trustees and asking them to settle," Mudd said.

If no settlement is reached, the BEA and the college likely will be back in Whatcom County Superior Court on Monday, Sept. 30, when the court could order teachers back to work since the faculty strike is illegal under state law.

SEE OFFERS, SALARY INFORMATION

• For the latest on BTC's offers, go to the school's website at btc.ctc.edu.

• For the latest word from the BEA, go to their site at btcfacultyvoice.org.

• To search a database of public employees' salaries, including that of the faculty and administrators at BTC and other area colleges, visit thenewstribune.com/wa-state-salaries and select "Bellingham Technical College" from the dropdown menu.

Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-756-2803 or samantha.wohlfeil@bellinghamherald.com.

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