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Economy hits McGregor, affects union negotiations

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A recent decline in enrollment at Antioch University McGregor has contributed to difficult contract negotiations between the school administration and its clerical staff union, according to several union representatives. During the negotiations administrators have stated that due to low enrollment they cannot provide cost-of-living raises for the clerical staff.

“When we started negotiations, we said that we intended to be fiscally responsible and there were concerns about the enrollment and the general economy,” according to Antioch University Human Resources Director Suzette Castonguay in a recent interview.

The negotiations have been taking place for the past several months between the McGregor administration and the school’s clerical staff, who belong to the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers, which has represented the clerical staff since 1996. The union represents the McGregor school’s 15 clerical workers, out of a total staff of about 45 people.

What’s unusual this year is both the length and the difficulty of the negotiations, according to two union representatives who asked not to be identified because negotiations are ongoing. In the past, the union’s three-year contract has been negotiated in a timely way, but negotiations, which began in September, are not yet finished and are currently on hold pending information about a new insurance provider. The union’s contract ran out Oct. 17, and not having a finalized new contract contributes to low staff morale, the union representatives said.

“The longer it takes, the more it wears people down. People get nervous,” the union representative said, adding that not having a contract by the holidays has added to staff anxiety.

In an interview last week, Castonguay said she could not comment on the substance of the negotiations because they are ongoing.

The union initially sought a 5.8 percent, or cost of living, raise, according to the representatives, and the McGregor administration’s first offer to the union was a 1 percent raise, coupled with a more than 300 percent increase in employees’ contributions to health insurance coverage for a family. Recently, the administration has increased its offer to a 2 percent raise, while the clerical workers have lowered their request to a 5 percent increase.

The administration’s fiscally conservative offer seems especially unfair in light of other university actions that seem extravagant, the union representative said, including the recent purchase of new computers for all employees whose equipment was more than three years old.

The union’s last contract gave a 5 percent annual raise, and a 3 percent raise has been standard, the union representative said. The union members currently receive from $15 to $21 per hour, according to the union representative, who said that the requested raise reflects increased responsibilities due to a hiring freeze.

Representing the McGregor administration in the negotiations are Castonguay, McGregor Dean of Student Services Darlene Robertson, McGregor Dean of Academic Affairs Iris Weisman and an attorney hired by McGregor. The employees are represented by union representatives Diana Tomas, Jayne Richeson, Sheila McBride and Rhonda McArthur, along with international union representative Dennis Painter. According to McGregor Provost Zak Sharif, who with Robertson and Weisman forms the school’s leadership team since the departure of former President Barbara Gellman-Danley, the McGregor administration negotiators work to stay within a budget set by Antioch University leaders.

“We do not directly control the finances,” he said. “We have a budget we work with but we don’t manage the budget.”

In a recent interview, Antioch University Chief Financial Officer Tom Faecke said he is not involved in the negotiations.

A national search is underway for a successor to Gellman-Danley, according to Castonguay. Gellman-Danley left McGregor in the summer for a position with the Ohio Board of Regents.

The school’s decline in enrollment has been cited by the administrators since the start of negotiations as the reason for their fiscally conservative offer, the union representatives stated.

According to Robertson, McGregor’s enrollment declined this fall to 637 students in all programs from 681 students in the fall of 2007.

The decline is linked to the economy, Robertson said in a recent interview.

“Small liberal arts colleges are not doing well,” she said. “People are concerned about incurring debt.”

While some institutions of higher education are prospering in the troubled economy, those institutions tend to be community colleges that offer vocational retraining at an affordable price, according to an August article in Inside Higher Education, which predicted a 10 percent increase this fall at community colleges.

Total enrollment at public Ohio colleges and universities increased slightly in fall 2008 by 1.2 percent, a figure which includes a 2.2 percent increase at two-year campuses and a 0.6 percent increase at four-year campuses, according to the Ohio Board of Regents.

Enrollment figures at McGregor are also significant because the Ohio Higher Education Facilities Commission $12 million performance bond for the school’s new 94,000 square foot building on the western edge of town was based on predictions that enrollment would grow 10 percent yearly, as predicted by Gellman-Danley. While the school’s enrollment did grow by 10 percent in 2002, it stayed flat at around 700 for the next several years and has more recently begun a decline.

The building’s 23 classrooms stand largely empty during the week, since McGregor classes are held on Saturdays and weekday evenings.

According to figures provided by Antioch University Spokesperson Lynda Sirk, the school began to pay back its bond debt two years ago, and has currently paid two out of three yearly payments of $262,051 on the bond’s interest. After three years, the school will begin to pay back the principal, Sirk said.

The demands of the new building and related expenses have been felt by McGregor’s employees, according to the union representatives, who said that the combination of significant debt and declining enrollment has created a financial squeeze so that several positions were not filled when former employees left, leaving fewer people with more responsibiities to fill the gaps. A hiring freeze for McGregor was imposed in early December, according to Sharif, who said that currently seven employee spots, out of about 50 employees, are unfilled.

Despite the bond payments and enrollment deline, McGregor’s budget was balanced last year, Sharif said, adding that the school’s budget “has never been in the red.”

“We’re being cautious,” he said of the hiring freeze. “We want to make sure we don’t go in the red.”

McGregor leaders believe at least one new program will lead to an increase in enrollment, Sharif said. Recently the school launched an initiative through its undergraduate school that will offer a bachelors degree completion program for early childhood teachers, who will soon be required by the state to have a bachelors degree. The program will begin this winter in conjunction with Cincinnati State, Sharif said, adding that he has also heard interest in a collaborative relationship from Clark State, Sinclair and Edison State.

“We have a number of strong programs and we need to let people know about them. We will need to start actively marketing,” Sharif said. However, he said, the school does not currently have the finances to hire a marketing person, although Robertson has performed that role in the past.

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