Miranda Merklein first got word that something was amiss at the local community college from a vague email.
The email, written by Santa Fe Community College’s faculty senate spokeswoman, encouraged her to show up to two Aug. 5 meetings to “find out about SFCC’s current financial situation, the plan to move forward, and how it will affect you.” Merklein, as the president of the college’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors, “will want to be at these two meetings,” the email read.
That day, she heard SFCC Interim President Randy Grissom explain how the college was suddenly in a $5 million budget shortfall and needed to make changes as soon as possible.
“This year we really are in deep doo-doo,” Grissom told attendees that day.
He then laid out the details of a yearlong “financial stability plan” to get the college back on its feet, which includes laying off 2.5 percent of the college’s full-time workers, raising tuition by next spring and cutting employee salaries at varying levels. The Governing Board soon approved a framework for the plan.
Merklein, who also teaches as an adjunct professor at the college, says the whole thing felt rushed.
“It was him telling us,” Merklein says of Grissom. “It wasn’t much of a discussion.”
Such is the situation that SFCC revealed to the public that day. It came after what Grissom says were weeks of planning for the cuts, including meetings with department heads and officials to see what could be sacrificed to get the college back to stability. The latest development only adds to a recently rocky period for the college.
Grissom largely blames the administration of his predecessor, Ana “Cha” Guzmán, for causing the shortfall. He says that the budget she presented in April 2013 “overestimated revenues and underestimated expenses.” In particular, the school saw more people taking advantage of a retirement incentive plan than expected. Guzmán’s team projected the cost at $600,000, but it came in at more than $1 million. He also says the college did too many small capital and building replacement projects.
Although the elected board approved that budget, Grissom says it’s not to blame for the current financial mess.
“The board asked a lot of good questions,” he says. “The answers they were given were not accurate, in my opinion.”
But not everybody is buying Grissom’s official explanation, and some are criticizing it for not being transparent enough about the budget gap. Both Merklein and Jessica Lawless, a former adjunct professor who taught at the college for five years before leaving in March for a job in the Bay Area, were no fans of Guzmán’s troubled tenure. Still, both women say that Guzmán is being made a scapegoat.
“It is pretty hard to believe that the situation SFCC is in now could have happened in only 14 months,” Lawless says, referring to Guzmán’s short time as college president.
"It is pretty hard to believe that the situation SFCC is in now could have happened in only 14 months"
The board fired Guzmán for “just cause” on a narrow 3-2 vote last December, some citing low employee morale. But Guzmán has long claimed that her firing really happened because she reported the college’s alleged financial mismanagement to State Auditor Hector Balderas. Just two months before the board voted to terminate her contract, Guzmán wrote a letter to the state auditor asking for a formal investigation.
Her allegations target Meridee Walters, a former vice president of finance and administration who retired in the summer of 2013 but is now back at the college as a special assistant to the interim president. Walters, according to Guzmán’s letter, authorized “arbitrary” stipends to certain employees, mismanaged a $35 million bond issue and consolidated power around herself in a way that compromised the college’s financial accountability.
At the start of 2013, Guzmán claims she discovered that the college had stopped following a formal budget process in fiscal year 2008 because of the recession. Guzmán writes that “Walters had taken sole authority upon herself to personally allocate public monies.”
But Grissom denies that SFCC ever lacked a formal budget process, underlining that a budget was presented to and approved by the Governing Board in each of those five years. He adds that he recently rehired Walters “to help get things back on track,” citing her role in getting the college through the recession without furloughs and layoffs as indispensable.
Grissom says he feels an upcoming review from the state auditor will vindicate Walters and “prove that she didn’t do anything wrong.”
Balderas says he wants to identify the underlying cause of the shorfall.
Not all of the college’s recent actions reflect the narrative of Guzmán’s incompetence. Soon after her firing, Guzmán filed a lawsuit against the college citing the state Whistleblower Protection Act for retaliation for writing the letter. In March, the Governing Board agreed to settle with Guzmán for $500,000.
Guzmán declined to comment for this story, citing terms from her settlement that bar her from speaking against the college. Her attorney Kate Ferlic says Guzmán stands by her letter to the state auditor.
“She believes that the allegations against her are false and is looking forward to the auditor’s report,” Ferlic says.
It’s also unclear why, if the college was holding weekly budget reviews as it reported in a 2013 audit, top college administrators didn’t catch the problems sooner.
Merklein isn’t sold on either explanation. She blames both the current and the previous college presidents for focusing too much on administrative jobs and not enough on academics. She says that both local and national representatives of the American Association of University Professors, which advocates for academic freedom and for faculty across the country, will soon examine the college’s finances
“We’re going to look at everything,” she says.