By Kathryn Lybarger | Special to the Mercury News

When the University of California’s largest union and its administrators settled a two year contract dispute this spring, each side pledged to work with the other in promoting shared principles like urging state legislators to re-invest in higher education.

This is not a new concept. The campaign to pass Prop. 30 back in 2012, for example, would not have been possible without this kind of cooperation.

Administrators have long voiced their belief that UC’s problems are mostly a matter of resources, which could be mitigated by a restoration of funding from the state’s General Fund and increased flexibility on things like borrowing and cash management.

They have a point. According to the California Budget Project, state support for UC peaked in 2007-2008 at nearly $3.7 billion. The budget under consideration by the Legislature and Governor would fund UC at just under $3 billion for the next year. This remains an inflation adjusted decrease of nearly 20 percent during a time when enrollment has actually grown by nearly 20 percent.

But that’s not the whole story. UC workers and students and legislators in both political parties have argued that the financial priorities of top UC administrators during this same period strayed too far from UC’s public mission to warrant a blank check. This assertion is equally well supported by the facts.

Even in the worst of the recession, payroll costs for the top 1 percent of UC employees grew by more than $250 million annually, and the number of employees receiving $250,000 annual salaries more than doubled.The system also engaged in dubious investment practices while forcing draconian cuts on students and frontline staff. All told the UC filled a $900 million state budget cut with nearly $2 billion in cuts to staff, basic facility maintenance, and student services, as well as through massive tuition hikes.

The work upon us now is to refocus UC’s spending and promote state re-investment in mission critical areas like affordability, quality and safety.

The state has taken a key step by tying some strings to UC funding, which helped produce a multi-year tuition freeze at UC.

UC’s new President, Janet Napolitano, has also taken important steps including setting aside more resources for underserved students and addressing unsafe staffing practices in a contract with AFSCME 3299.

But within days of settling that contract, the entire UC community was rocked by a tragedy that reminds us all of how far we still have to go.

Damon Frick, a 45 year old custodian at UC Berkeley, was killed when the 30 year old lift on which he was standing to clean windows collapsed. While the university has not produced records showing the equipment was properly maintained, Vice President Patrick Lenz made it clear in a Daily Bruin article that funding shortfalls had been pushing tens of millions of dollars in basic safety maintenance to the back burner.

Like other universities, UC is grappling with the problem of sexual assault on campus, something that more lighting, security cameras and removal of brush could help to address.

That’s why Assembly Speaker Toni Atkins wants to provide an additional $100 million from the state’s expected general fund surplus that state universities could use for deferred maintenance.

Even one preventable tragedy at UC is one too many. Thanks to Atkins, the Legislature and governor have an opportunity to help protect the millions of Californians who utilize our facilities each year by providing the resources to make them safer.

Kathryn Lybarger is a Lead Gardener at UC Berkeley and president of AFSCME 3299, the university’s largest employee union. She wrote this for this newspaper.

[Source]: Mercury News