by ALEXANDRA RETTER and CHRIS ROGERS
Last week, Winona State University (WSU) announced it would cut teaching jobs at the university’s Maxwell Children’s Center, which provides child care for students and faculty. Parents decried the decision, and nearly 400 people have signed a petition opposing it. University leaders are now backtracking because WSU did not initially provide teachers with contractually required advanced notice. University officials now say the job cuts are a proposal — not a done deal — subject to further negotiation with the teachers’ union, and WSU President Scott Olson said the school and union would discuss “alternative solutions.”
In the proposal, WSU announced on March 26 that it would change eight out of nine current teaching positions to assistant teaching positions with reduced pay. The current teachers, who would stay on through the beginning of September, could apply to be assistant teachers.
Today, the teachers all develop lessons and teach. In contrast, two licensed teachers would create lessons and teach less frequently under the proposed restructuring. Additionally, assistant teachers would be in the classroom all day with children and provide guidance to education students.
WSU announcement jumped the gun
WSU sent a press release on March 26 saying the decision to restructure the Children’s Center had already been made. However, according to the contract between WSU and the Minnesota State University Association of Administrative and Service Faculty (ASF), the union of which Children’s Center employees are a part, WSU announced the decision prematurely.
The university did not initially fulfill a contractual obligation to meet and confer with ASF prior to announcing a decision about layoffs on March 26. The contract states, “Any unit reduction due to layoff … or subcontracting … is subject to meet and confer. Policy decisions subject to meet and confer shall not be implemented prior to being brought to meet and confer.” WSU later met with ASF on April 12.
Additionally, eight of the current teachers are “externally funded” employees. The contract states, “ASF members with externally funded appointments with more than four years of service shall receive written notice of personnel reduction 150 calendar days in advance of termination.”
The university acknowledged in a statement that it had not met its contractual responsibilities. “In seeking to be transparent with campus and community partners about the proposed restructuring of the WSU Children’s Center, the university inadvertently skipped a necessary step in the contractual notification process for the affected employees and with the ASF collective bargaining unit,” the statement read.
In response to the announcement, WSU faculty members and students with children who attend the Children’s Center said they vehemently oppose the proposed restructuring. They cited the impact the restructuring could have on the quality of care children receive and the quality of education students majoring in early childhood education receive. They also said the center brings value to WSU that cannot be calculated in a budget, such as being beneficial to recruiting faculty and students who are women or people of color. They noted as well that they did not want to see current teachers lose their jobs after all the work they have done, both during the pandemic and before. “The word that came to my mind was shocked,” said WSU graduate student Claire Richards, whose children attend the center. “That an institution of higher learning would not understand the value and merit in providing this community with something as simple as stable childcare. After a pandemic. After a year where our children in this community collectively have experienced collective trauma ... And these nine women under absurd circumstances not only made our child each of our children’s lives enriched every day, but they helped us feel safe and they helped us feel cared for.”
WSU decision-makers point to budget constraints
WSU as a whole is facing budget shortfalls, worsened by falling enrollment in recent years. According to Minnesota State’s latest financial report, WSU ended 2019-2020 with a $9.7-million loss. Other Minnesota State universities posted smaller, though significant losses that year. WSU officials said the school announced plans this month for $4.4 million in budget reductions university-wide.
In their initial press release, WSU officials said downgrading jobs at the Children’s Center was an unfortunate necessity. In a statement on Monday, university leaders wrote, “To be responsible stewards of both student tuition dollars and state tax dollars, and to ensure the center is around for future generations of Warriors and world citizens, the budgetary deficits must be addressed.” WSU cites the center’s average deficits between 2016 and 2020 of $150,000 a year. “Continuing to run the center at a $150,000 loss each year is not an option,” administrators wrote last week. Administrators said replacing all but a couple of the center’s lead teachers with lower-paid assistant teachers would match the norm in early childhood centers. “This was not an easy decision as we know it greatly impacts eight teachers who have dedicated their time and passion to the center, to WSU education students, and to children,” Children’s Center Director Cheryl Vogel said in last week’s release.
In the past three years, the Children’s Center has reduced spending, and its average deficit in 2019 and 2020 shrunk to $88,000, according to budget documents. The center is primarily self-funded with fees, grants, and other revenues making up over 80 percent of its $1.2-million budget, while WSU’s student fees and general fund allocations — which include state education funding and tuition dollars — only account for about a sixth of the center’s budget. General fund allocations to the Children’s Center had been frozen at $100,000 since 2017 and were cut to just $42,000 this year, according to WSU budget documents.
WSU College of Education Dean Daniel Kirk canceled a planned interview with the Winona Post last week, with a spokesperson saying the university needed to communicate with the union before making more public statements. WSU officials declined interview requests this week, citing the same reason.
Paul Stern is the local president for the union representing the Children’s Center teachers, Minnesota State University Association of Administrative and Service Faculty (MSUAASF). He said the union raised concerns with WSU leadership and wrote in response to an interview request, “I want to respect that contractual process and have the opportunity to work through issues, concerns, and questions in that forum before commenting any further.”
Parents criticize proposed cuts
Richards said that while WSU is educating students in the field of early childhood education, it is not willing to pay center employees wages commensurate with their education. “For a university ... to take that opportunity away from people who are paying tuition to go to their university to get a four-year degree in early childhood education, and then upon their graduation make the decision that, you know what, at our institution this position doesn’t warrant a four-year degree. It doesn’t warrant a salary that would allow you to pay back the loans that our university put you in debt to take out. That is a concern that I have as a student,” she said.
Parents also expressed concerns about the Children’s Center not operating at the capacity it could, such as not reopening to the community and consequently not bringing in as much revenue as possible. They said this move hurt families in the community who have been desperate for child care during the pandemic. That university decision is limiting the center’s financial success, Children's Center parent and WSU professor Jennifer Anderson said. According to university documents, there are currently 49 children enrolled at the center, and the capacity is 176.
The parents said that the restructuring could impact the quality of education early childhood education majors get while working with children at the center, and affect the level of care children receive there, as well. Child care helps with recruiting and retaining faculty members and students, they said, including women and people of color. “It’s a diversity issue,” Anderson said.
Beyond those concerns, the parents said the current teachers have provided immense amounts of support for them, and they do not want them to lose their jobs after the effort they put into following COVID protocols and helping families keep going during the pandemic. Richards said that the thought of telling her child about their teacher not being there in the fall “is just devastating.” Anderson said the current teachers have been her support structure over the past several years. “They taught me how to be a parent. They helped me through the hardest time in my life,” she said.
WSU’s initial press release said assistant teachers would be tasked with running classrooms and mentoring college students. WSU officials said this would not affect the quality of care at the center or the learning experiences it provides to education majors.
WSU officials wrote, “WSU has the utmost respect for the teachers who have dedicated years to the Children’s Center both with their time and their hearts. The proposed budget reduction, which is not finalized, in no way diminishes it.”
For now, WSU’s proposal is on hold while it gives the union time to respond. WSU and MSUAASF met on Monday, and university officials indicated there would be further discussions. WSU President Scott Olson said that the university would “consider alternative solutions.”
In a statement after Monday’s meeting, WSU administrators wrote, “WSU is committed to working with the Children’s Center teaching team and the [MSUA]ASF bargaining unit to look at options for how the center can become more sustainable. At this time no decision has been made, nor is the plan complete until bargaining unit leadership, the dean of the College of Education, and Children’s Center employees have gone through the contractual process and have had a chance to review, provide input, and participate in this shared governance environment.”
Keep reading the Winona Post for more on this story.