Seattle Central Community College
Courtesy of Jillian Suleski
Since last June, a time bomb has slowly been ticking away for the Seattle Central Community College Film and Video Communications program. On one end are the students, faculty, and the larger Seattle film community, looking for the right wire to cut to disable it. On the other end are the administration, who are facing an increasingly dramatic budget crunch and see no other option than to let long-planned explosion occur.
The decision to cut the program was announced at the end of the last academic year, in mid-June. Central President Paul Killpatrick has announced that all budget decisions are final, but supporters hope they can somehow change his mind by showing the value of the program. At the very least, the supporters hope the college will allow first-year students to graduate, something that is always expected in the state's higher education system when a program is being terminated.
The program has earned considerable praise from those who follow film in Seattle. When the closure decision was announced last year, a story by The Stranger's highly regarded arts writer Jen Graves was headlined, "Seattle Central Community College Guts a Treasure."
Marty Oppenheimer, who sits on the Technical Advisory Committee for the program, owns Oppenheimer Cine Rental, and has been involved in the Seattle film industry since 1974, is frustrated with the decision. "My more considered response is, 'It's a dumb idea.' "
The two-year accredited program not only trains students to operate cameras and use editing programs, but gives them the knowledge to create complete, artistic works and prepares them for the professional film world, said program teacher and documentarian Sandy Cioffi. After graduating, many students go on to work freelance, start personal media companies, and receive four-year degrees. Several students have gone on to work for larger organizations, including SIFF, KOMO, Microsoft, Warner Bros., CNN, and Disney.
Other students have also been able to work on notable projects. Last year, three students worked on the feature film "21 and Over," which was shot in Seattle. A 2007 graduate, Cameron Rumford, was an assistant editor on "Undefeated," which just won an Academy Award for best feature documentary in this year's Oscars.
The cost of the program is surprisingly reasonable, at $6,500 for the full two years. Other local programs cost more than $25,000 at Seattle Film Institute and more than $86,000 Art Institute of Seattle to complete. In addition to providing opportunity at an affordable cost, Cioffi said the program has seen all kinds of students: veterans, single mothers, drug addicts — sometimes people who normally wouldn't be seen at any university. For her, some of these people have done "mind blowing" jobs on their films.
“I think that is something about that program that is so valuable and so sad to see," graduate Jillian Suleski said. "I think future students will lose access to that type of education. And that’s sad.”
Suleski said that she would not have even considered attending SCCC had it not been affordable. She had already received a Bachelor's Degree in Criminal Justice and Psychology from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. But through life experience she learned, as so many people do, that she did not want to work in her intended field. SCCC's Film & Video program became a second chance at a meaningful professional life.
So far, Suleski is living out that life. She has been able to sustain herself with freelance work, has started a small company with fellow graduate Nick Nelson, Playfish Media, LLC, and is interviewing for New York University's Master of Fine Arts in Filmmaking program, with an intended focus in writing and directing.
For Suleski, the decision to cut the program was flabbergasting. “I couldn’t believe it," she said. "I was shocked and I couldn’t believe it."
Likewise, every other student, faculty member, and interested party interviewed have been equally baffled by the decision, and continue to be so even as the one-year anniversary of the decision, and the end of the program, approaches.
The most readily apparent reason for the cut is the budget crisis. During the economic downturn and the much-maligned budget decisions by the state Legislature, SCCC is finding itself forced to make cuts and raise tuition by the full 12 percent at least two years in a row. This is the stance that the administration has made in their public relations.
In a press release, Killpatrick stated that SCCC must make a budget reduction of $4 million. To meet this goal, in addition to other cuts, three programs are meeting the guillotine: Film & Video, Publishing Arts, and the well respected Intrepeter Training Program. In choosing these programs, the college "did a program sustainability analysis of every program, looking at enrollment, cost per student and completion rates," a "Frequently Asked Questions" document stated. The rate at which graduates attain jobs was also cited as a reason for cutting the Film & Video program — which for many filmmakers is an up-and-down business, with times of famine and times of feast, graduate Robyn Scaringi said. Cioffi said that the analysis did not take into account freelance work, which most filmmakers start out doing.
Some may suspect that the cost of film equipment would contribute greatly to the cost of the program. However, the program uses older equipment, according to Oppenheimer, who has donated and discounted much equipment for the program. The idea is that students should not learn how to use the "latest and greatest" — which will only be the latest and greatest for so long, anyway — but how to use equipment in general, no matter how old or new, Oppenheimer said.
Questions have arisen about the legitimacy of the budget-crunch reasoning, since the administration rejected a proposal made by the faculty to reduce costs and to allow time to recover the program, if possible.
Cioffi and film faculty colleague Sal Tonacchio claim the proposal would have allowed first-year students to finish out their second year with no cost to the school. The proposal would have Cioffi go on leave — leaving Tonacchio as the only full-time teacher to finish out the second year — reduce the full-time instructional tech position to part-time, reduce the amount of classes taught by part-time faculty, freeze equipment funding, place all computers on self-support, and save facilities costs by reducing the amount of classes taught in Siegel Center.
According to the numbers given to the faculty by SCCC, the program costs the college about $224,000. The proposal purportedly saves $96,000, meaning that with tuition and state allocations — totaling almost $140,000 — the program would provide a net profit of $11,000. The college did not respond to requests asking if these numbers were right or if the proposal was reviewed.
"Based on the dollar amounts the college has provided to us, we see that there’s no additional cost to the college running the second year of the first-year (students)," Tonacchio said. "So we’re really perplexed why they would not allow them to finish the second year."
Some have taken rejection of this proposal, along with the lack of communication, as a sign of a deeper motive. The question arises: what if the college is in fact targeting someone with the cut?
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