Gabby Costa, a forestry major at Columbia College, said thousands of students across the Yosemite Community College District were all in the same position — held hostage by the uncertainty that completing their course work was in jeopardy if the faculty union moved to strike.

But like the majority of the speakers on Wednesday night at the district board meeting in the Manzanita Building of Columbia College, Costa, 23, of Groveland, placed the blame on the district administration for the deadlocked negotiation process.

“There’s no possible way to mitigate the resource loss if you put our professors in this position,” she said. “Why did I not know you’re so unstable?”

Nearly 50 students, staff and faculty of the Yosemite district, which includes Modesto Junior College and Columbia College, attended the meeting. Many wore red in solidarity with the Yosemite Faculty Association, which filed an unfair practice injunction on Tuesday to block a series of resolutions. The resolutions would have given emergency authority to Chancellor Henry C.V. Yong that the union believed would have infringed on its right to strike.

The resolutions were removed from board agenda at the start of the meeting, which Yong said was a deliberate effort to reinforce the district’s commitment to the ongoing negotiation process.

“The resolutions were pulled so there will be an opportunity to take another look at how we can solve our differences in a manner that is collegiate,” he said. “I completely understand where the students are coming from, but since we are in the middle of negotiations that’s why none of us made a comment.”

The parties are at an impasse in negotiations and awaiting a report from independent arbiter after a fact-finding conference on Sept. 17 and 18.

The faculty union has been without a contract since June 30, 2016, and has raised grievances related to the rate of compensation increases for faculty over three years and proposed increases in maximum class sizes. Negotiations began on Nov. 6, 2015.

And though representatives of both the union and district have reinforced their intention to avoid a strike, Columbia College employees decried the widening rift between the two parties as a result of leadership vacuum in the district administration.

Lahna VonEpps, a math professor for nine years Columbia College, twirled in front of the board of trustees and said she was wearing a red dress in solidarity with the faculty, but a black jacket as a symbol of mourning.

“It is a sad thing we are going through. This is a sad time,” she said.

VonEpps said she was already overworked while teaching four sections, and a proposed increase to the maximum class size to 45 students “does not improve student success.”

Joey Partridge, 28, an instructional support specialist at Columbia College spoke through tears about the deterioration of the “culture and family” at the district.

“My job is to fix things,” he said. “I can’t do that with members and people.”

Partridge, a former student and employee of both district campuses, was a union steward for the California School Employees Association during the classified employee negotiations, which were finished last month, he said.

He was so disheartened by the process that he decided he wouldn’t return to that position during the next negotiations, he told the board.

“The morale at classified is down,” he said. “I hoped to do another 30 years here but the way things are running, I don’t think I will.”

After the meeting, Partridge said the leadership vacuum was systemic of an administration that stifled employee voices in the decision-making process. The current contract negotiations with the faculty union only revealed that the district was more divided, and had less direction, than ever, he said.

“If you have a strong leadership everyone will follow you. But if you have a weak leadership everyone will just do their own thing,” Partridge said.

Modesto Junior College employs 244 full-time faculty employees as of this fall and, as of spring 2018, 346 part-time employees. Columbia College employs 55 full-time faculty employees as of this fall and 80 part-time employees as of spring 2018.

Enrollment of both full-time and part-time students in the district include about 18,980 students at Modesto Junior College and 2,907 at Columbia College.

Tuolumne County Superintendent of Schools Margie Bulkin, who will retire this year, was in attendance at the meeting. Bulkin and retired educator Denise Springer are running for a trustee position in Area 1.

Controversial resolutions

One of three emergency resolutions removed from the agenda on Wednesday declared “any strike, walk-out, slowdown or other type of work stoppage by the employees of the district” as “unlawful.”

The resolutions delegated authority to Yong to close the schools in the advent of a strike, to deduct salary from employees with “unauthorized absences,” or suggest disciplinary action against employees, which could result in their dismissal.

Jim Sahlman, union president, decried the initial inclusion of the resolutions as “harmful and destructive to the negotiating process.”

“They're illegal. You cannot deny the public employee the right to strike. The way they wrote this up makes unilateral changes to the contract and it infringes on free speech,” he said before the meeting on Wednesday.

Sahlman said he received the district agenda on Sunday morning and sent the documents to the union attorney, David Conway, for review. An unfair practice charge was filed against the Yosemite Community College District on Tuesday, which Sahlman said prompted the removal of the resolutions from the agenda.

Guy Bryant, the lawyer representing the district, said the board planned on pulling the resolutions to make corrections to them even before the injunction was filed.
Bryant said he conferred with Conway before the meeting to ensure that the injunction was “moot” if the resolutions were tabled.

“All agreed that matter has been resolved for now,” Bryant said.

Bryant said the district would plan to reinstate the resolutions for a board vote should the faculty union move to strike, and cited them as essential to protect the institutional processes of the district.

“Because the district cares about student and student success we want to assure them that the district will do all it can to maintain course curriculum and the integrity of both colleges,” he said. “Only if we are unable to reach a settlement at some future meeting we will have to take this step.”

Amendments to the resolutions would likely be “more tailored to clarify what specific concerns the district has with the use of sick time and other leave” that could be used by employees during a strike, he said.

Sahlman characterized the resolutions as a tactic to silence and “coerce the faculty into accepting the unacceptable.”

“The district is desperate. They know they can’t cover 2,100 sections over both the campuses. They simply logistically and mathematically don't have the coverage. They recognize that, so they put the resolutions up there to scare faculty into not striking. It was not only illegal it was unethical,” he said.

Internal tensions

The unfair practice injunction also alleged a deliberate “animus” on behalf of the district toward the union, citing an email where Vice Chancellor of Information Technology Roger Clague appeared to deny technical assistance to the YFA offices on the district campus after phone and computer networking connections stopped working and referred to Sahlman as a “jackass.”

The document said a request to resolve the issue was sent to the MJC President, YCCD Chancellor, Judy Lanchester, the Director of Facilities, and seven other district officials.

In a Sept.11 email sent to district employees, Clague said, “we are simply not going to be at this jackass’ beck and call on my watch” because Sahlman did not send the technical request to the “help desk.”

In the email, Clague referred to Sahlman’s email as “bad form in the extreme” and indicated that Sahlman should have used “a clearly defined process.”

On Oct. 6, Yong responded to Sahlman (and copied multiple other district employees) to apologize for the “outrageously disrespectful manner” in which he was treated.
In the email, Yong said he was precluded from sharing additional information on discipline due it now being “an HR matter.”

Sahlman said he did not know if Clauge had been placed on administrative leave or disciplined.

In an email sent from Clague to Sahlman less than three hours later on Oct. 6., Clague claimed to be exercising his “first amendment right” and accused Sahlman of utilizing a “double standard” to “insult and degenerate us to your heart’s content.”

“Yes by every urban dictionary definition I can find… you are! so yes I am doubling down,” the email said.

Further in the email, Clague refers to Sahlman as a “schoolyard bully, who thrives on mob rule as long you are leading the mob on threats and intimidation.”

When contacted by the Union Democrat on Wednesday, Clague declined to comment on whether he was disciplined. An automated email response to Clague’s work email said he would be out of the office until further notice.

On Wednesday Clague accused Sahlman of “cyberbullying” for allegedly sending his first email to every staff member, faculty employee and student across the district database. Clague estimated the email was sent to approximately 20,000 people.

“He is trying to be deliberately divisive,” Clague said. “He is trying to engender hate.”

Clague said he is considering a civil suit against both Sahlman and the district related to a hostile work environment and denial of first amendment and 4th amendment rights.

Continuing negotiations

Sahlman said a report has not been issued by the fact finder, but indicated that it was expected this week. Once the report was received, Sahlman said there would be a 10-day confidential review period where negotiations could be reinitiated.
“We’ve been in negotiations for three years. That’s a very long time,” Sahlman said. “We’ve really prolonged this as long as we can, so this has never been a rush to go to strike if it comes to that. Faculty doesn’t want to strike, but faculty will strike if that’s what it comes down to.”
The recommendation issued by the fact-finder is non-binding, Sahlman said.

On Sept. 19, the Yosemite Faculty Association voted 95.4 percent in favor and 4.6 percent percent against to authorize a strike, Sahlman said. About 85 percent of the 305 dues-paying members voted, he said.
The authorization vote provided the union with the ability to pursue a strike immediately if negotiations remain at an impasse following the fact-finder’s recommendation.

Yong said he was “hopeful and confident that we can bridge our differences and find a solution in the near future” and also reaffirmed the district’s support of the faculty in the face of the contract dispute.

The district has a standing offer for a 6 percent salary increase over three years, with a 2 percent salary schedule increase for faculty compounding over the three years. The agreement would also restructure the salary schedule, which would increase some salaries as high as 7.17 percent over the three years. The board will ratify and approve an eventual agreement.
The faculty union has argued that the proposed rate of compensation increase is not commensurate with other community college districts in their cohort, which includes San Joaquin Delta Community College District, Contra Costa Community College District, Kern Community College District, and other districts in southern California, including Long Beach Community College District.

Sahlman said the union has proposed being paid at the median level of the other districts in cohort. The faculty union is at the bottom of all the districts, (9 out of 11) and 24 percent below the median in terms of total compensation (salary and benefits), Sahlman said.

Contact Giuseppe Ricapito at (209) 588-4526 or . Follow him on Twitter @gsepinsonora.