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Lessons in Frustration

Payroll Failure At BCCC Leaves Many Teachers Without Pay For 10 Weeks

Frank Klein
UNFASHIONABLY LATE: Meredeth Page is one of many part-time teachers at Baltimore City Community College who were left without pay for weeks because of a snafu in the school’s payroll system.

By Jeffrey Anderson | Posted 11/7/2007

For ace student and part-time fashion design teacher Meredith Page, Baltimore City Community College seemed like a great opportunity to teach and encourage young women less fortunate than herself.

But after going 10 weeks recently without a contract or pay, Page says she's fed up after just a year and a half on the job.

"This is the third semester in a row I haven't been paid on time," she says. "There's a different excuse every week. I have a mortgage and bills to pay. The school doesn't care."

Page is not alone. According to a number of faculty members, staff reductions in the payroll department shortly before last Christmas resulted in a bottleneck that eventually clogged when the lone person responsible for processing time sheets had a stroke recently.

Mary Kambic, an adjunct English teacher, appeared at a public meeting of the BCCC Board of Trustees on Oct. 29 to say that nearly all of the adjunct staff went the first two months of the semester without pay or a contract. Page and colleague Dyanne Marte, a fashion designer and former full-time teacher, say some teachers have walked off the job midsemester after their complaints fell on deaf ears.

BCCC is the most affordable community college in the state, with credit and noncredit courses ranging from accounting and banking to computer science and glassblowing. According to the Maryland Higher Education Commission, the college has been state-funded since 1992 and has an operating budget in excess of $40 million. It has a total enrollment of 22,000, and 670 full- and part-time faculty, serving a vital function for low-income and minority students who have few if any options for higher education.

BCCC President Carolane Williams acknowledges that the pay failure for part-time teachers "was massive" but denies that it was caused by a reduction in payroll staff. She says the school offered "interim pay" to teachers who asked for it and promised a full-scale review and overhaul of payroll procedures. "It is unfortunate, and all I can do is apologize and look for ways to never let this happen again," she says. "This was not a personnel failure, but a process failure."

However, veteran teachers who went before the Board of Trustees last week and members of the English, humanities, and visual arts department, under which the fashion design program operates, suggest the pay failure is a sign of deeper problems that could lead to the loss of qualified instructors. Meanwhile, the Maryland Department of Legislative Services has flagged a troubling staff vacancy rate between 10 and 15 percent over the last three years and projects student enrollment to rise 4 percent next year.

Meredith Page is on a break in between teaching her design concepts class and her "real job, the one that pays"--a bartending gig at the Sidebar Tavern. Gazing up at the hulking BCCC downtown campus' Dr. Harry Bard Building, Page can hardly contain her bitterness.

The 29-year-old from Columbia says she'd quit today if she didn't have a mortgage. Her boss, fashion design program head Sally DiMarco, offered to loan her money, but last week the school suddenly came through with seven of 10 weeks pay she was owed. "Paying your teaching staff should be a top priority," Page says, still smarting. "There's no reason for teachers to not have a contract before the start of the semester."

The fashion design program is the only one of its kind in Maryland, Page says. Most of her students are inner-city women, many of them unmarried with children. An honors graduate of the University of Maryland with training at the London College of Fashion, Page sees the payroll snafu as a sign of disrespect. What's more, she says it is consistent with her perception that students have low expectations about the quality of education at BCCC.

"The idea behind BCCC is good," she says. "Cheap credits, help people move up in their lives. The school just goes about it all wrong."

At nine hours per week, and 16 weeks per semester, with a salary of $35 an hour, Page estimates she makes about $10,000 a year teaching at BCCC--when she's getting paid. Her bartending job at the Sidebar brings in more than twice as much. "I could really use that money. I hate to think my only option is to turn to bartending full time."

Inside the Bard Building, Page runs into fellow adjunct fashion design teacher Katarina Kozarova, who is from Slovakia. Kozarova, 28, says she has two contracts with the school and had been paid on only one of them, until just a few days ago. "It's my only job, and I can't be as independent as I'd like," says Kozarova, who is both teaching and taking classes at BCCC while trying to perfect her English. "It's hard to think about next year. You don't want to work for someone who does not pay you."

The women report to Sally DiMarco, a stylish den motherly type who has nurtured the fashion program for 29 years. Seeing Page and Kozarova talking with a reporter, DiMarco reluctantly agrees to answer questions about why her staff is not getting paid. DiMarco has butted heads with the administration before, most recently in 2005 over a mold problem in the Bard Building, a problem that City Paper exposed ("Harboring Mold," Mobtown Beat, April 5, 2006). Today, however, she is less feisty about the nonpayment of her teachers, three of whom have already indicated they will not return next semester.

"I'm concerned I'm going to lose good teachers and it'll hurt students," DiMarco says nervously. "I have a good staff with industry experience, but they've made it clear that they can't afford to work under these conditions. I don't want to lose them."

At the same time, DiMarco praised President Williams for her support of the fashion program, which designed and sewed the dress Williams wore at her inauguration last year. "Not every president we've had has been so supportive," DiMarco says.

Adjunct remedial English teacher Yvonne Keith enters DiMarco's office and declares, "I hear the fashion group is getting terrorized." Keith, who claims she too has not been paid, is late on her rent. "How hard do I have to fight to get paid?" she says. A colleague complained about not being paid, Keith adds, only to get screamed at by the English department head.

"That was the last straw," she says. "I've decided not to return. I can't afford to come back next February and not get paid until March."

Not everyone is so jammed up at BCCC, though. Ali Roodsari, the head of the business department, pauses at the elevators to say his full-time staff has been paid, but then he casually mentions, "Maybe for the part-time staff there is a delay. But it's in process."

Roodsari insists on ushering a reporter into the office of Herbert Sledge, executive director for communication and research. "I'm not aware of any payroll problem," Sledge says at first, before telling Roodsari, "I wouldn't want you or Sally [DiMarco] to comment in any way that doesn't connect exactly with the official word from Dr. Williams." Later, Sledge gets Williams on the phone, and she confirms the massive pay failure.

Later that night, the Board of Trustees meets before an audience of about 50 people. The meeting begins with accolades for teachers with special projects and accomplishments. DiMarco is recognized for her plans to lead a student trip to Milan and Venice next year to study fashion. Williams, a tall, highly composed woman, introduces the topic of the evening: "How can BCCC better serve you?"

Michael Berlin, a sociology professor, addresses the board and says that a host of basic faculty concerns, including contracts and timely payment of adjunct teachers, were not addressed at an Oct. 5 executive faculty meeting convened by Williams. "We need to confront the growing malaise," Berlin says, "develop a shared sense of purpose, and turn things around."

Then Mary Kambic complains of not being paid, in spite of Williams' insistence that BCCC has made provisions for all teachers to receive interim pay. "This is the first time I've been tempted to call it quits," Kambic tells the eight-member Board of Trustees, appointed by the governor. "It's hard to keep track of students when 50 percent of your adjunct staff is not being paid."

In a phone interview the next day, adjunct fashion technology teacher Sherry Stauffer downplays the controversy. Turns out Stauffer complained of no pay early on and received her paycheck in short order. "This is Baltimore City," she says. "This is red tape. I don't see the need to raise a stink."

At the same time, Stauffer offers, "I don't blame people for being upset. You mess with a person's paycheck, you mess with their livelihood."

Dyanne Marte, an independent fashion designer who has worked and studied in New York, says there's no respect at BCCC for its adjunct teachers, who are dedicated to teaching low-income inner-city students. "If the problem is solved, then why haven't I seen a contract? Why haven't I been paid?

"This place is all about protocol, and people are afraid if they complain they'll end up without a job."

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