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Beloved Seattle Colleges programs are safe for now, but their long-term fate remains unclear

Faced with a massive budget crisis years in the making, Seattle Colleges administrators let faculty know last month that four beloved programs were at risk of shutting down, including the well-known culinary institute.

“It just was not a good feeling,” said Scott Moy, an instructor and coordinator with Seattle Central College’s Apparel Design and Development program, one of the four trades and technical programs on the chopping block.

The reaction was swift. A petition was started online to save Seattle Central’s culinary program, students showed up for a protest on Central’s campus ahead of a budget meeting, and selected leaders — including representatives from the governor’s office — reached out to see what it would take to save them.

For the moment, officials say the Maritime Academy, Wood Technology Center and Seattle Central’s Culinary Arts and Apparel Design and Development programs are safe. Several business and elected leaders pledged emergency funding to keep the programs going, and college leaders say they can continue enrolling new students next fall.

But school leaders warn that the future remains unclear, with much work to be done to make the hands-on programs more financially sustainable as the school system claws itself out of a massive budget deficit. The current shortfall has been fueled by declining enrollment, the sudden need to focus more resources on responding to the pandemic, and what school officials say is an inadequate funding mechanism from the state Legislature.

The most current budget deficit estimate says the school system’s shortfall is around $13 million. It’s a lot of ground to cover, and the popular programs being eyeballed by school administrators are some of the most expensive to operate, with pricey equipment and limited course capacity needed to train students most effectively.

Seattle Colleges Chancellor Shouan Pan oversees the three community college campuses — North Seattle, South Seattle and Seattle Central — each with their own president. For every student enrolled in the hands-on programs, he said, it takes the schools thousands of dollars a year to subsidize them. The Maritime Academy, for example, costs roughly $21,000 per student each year.

“We do get special funding, but it’s far from enough to sustain the program,” Pan said.

Historically, international student enrollment played a central part in providing those dollars. But in recent years, enrollment among all types of students has slipped, and the number of international students has dropped off dramatically. Reports show international student enrollment has declined across all three Seattle colleges by 66% since 2016, and data shows international enrollment across Washington dropped by 18% in 2021 alone.

Louise Chernin chairs the Seattle Colleges Board of Trustees. She said the drop in international students started with federal policies under the Trump administration, and was made even worse when COVID-19 hit.

The drop in international student enrollment caused a loss of about $8 million in revenue, and “that’s something that’s been an especially high impact on our college district,” she said.

That overall enrollment drop makes it difficult too, Pan said, because it reduces the average class size across the system, providing less student-generated revenue per instructor.

“Every class we offer we’re losing money,” he said. “We need classes to have balance.”

Chernin and Pan say the college started working to reduce its budget before the pandemic, but that work came to a screeching halt as schools scrambled to pivot to remote learning and make sure students and staff could adjust to a new remote world.

But the idea that the colleges’ administrators could move to eliminate programs that provide skilled workers for critical industries — several currently facing major staff shortages — came as a shock and disappointment to many.

Chuck McQuinn, a retired surgeon and longtime resident of Seattle, took several courses through the Wood Technology Center. He said he was saddened to hear of the potential closure of the WTC, because it would be a huge loss for people looking to explore a new career or skill set.

“That’s what really would be a great loss for the community and the society as a whole if those opportunities go away,” McQuinn said, “because those young people then have a more constricted set of opportunities for them, and we can’t afford to squander anybody’s talent as far as I’m concerned.”

Betty Sasenick works for La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, an international culinary organization that provides scholarships and hosts cooking competitions to help train the next generation of chefs. She said Seattle Central’s program stands out — it’s the only one in the state with a baking and pastry track. It’s also a renowned program in the culinary world, graduating several big names in cuisine and receiving an “exemplary” rating by the American Culinary Federation. She says it will also play an essential role in helping the restaurant industry recover.

“They need to make a smart and intelligent decision that is going to be sustainable, not only to the budget but also to the real recovery mode and to the city and to the state,” she said.

Many people shared concerns about what closure of the popular programs could mean for future students. Moy, the coordinator for the apparel program, said it would be a huge loss for those who need better access to high-quality career training opportunities that are more affordable and don’t take as long to complete as four-year programs.

The limited timeline for people to give input also caused plenty of consternation. When Sasenick and Moy heard about the proposed closures, it seemed that the official signoff to recommend that the school system sunset the programs was imminent.

Pan says nothing was kept hidden intentionally, but he and Chernin agree that they and other school officials could — and should — have done more to convey the magnitude of the situation more transparently and earlier.

We have to be more transparent when we have problems, and we have to be less general and more specific,” Chernin said.

Still, even if the college moved forward to sunset all four programs, it wouldn’t be enough to cover the current budget gap. Pan says the colleges are working to reduce their spending, in part by scaling back administrative costs and offering early retirement incentives.

For now, the outpouring of support and promises of emergency funding are enough to buoy the programs so new students can continue enrolling in them next school year. Pan and Chernin are encouraged by the support. They hope the schools can better partner with industry leaders and look at ways to restructure the programs to help make them more financially sustainable.

But they point out that the Legislature also has a critical role to play in keeping the programs open into the future.

“My hope is that this is a wake-up call — that our state Legislature starts looking at how do we fund our community college system?” she said. “This isn’t just about us, it’s about our workforce, it’s about the economic health of our community.”

The Seattle Colleges Board of Trustees meets to go over next year’s budget proposal May 12, and will offer its final approval on the 2022-2023 budget in June.

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