Seattle Central film students running out of hope

Students knew that the college was planning to end the program, but they thought that, at the minimum, they would be allowed to finish their course of studies. After all, that's the statewide practice.

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Jillian Suleski, right, directs on the set of "Playfish" in the Moore Theatre

Students knew that the college was planning to end the program, but they thought that, at the minimum, they would be allowed to finish their course of studies. After all, that's the statewide practice.

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?

Karen Strickland, president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 1879 (the Seattle chapter), feels that the decision to cut the Film & Video program is unique from other cuts, especially when the proposal Cioffi and Tonacchio made to reduce costs is considered. As a result, the AFT filed an unfair labor practice to look into the matter, after previous negotiations went nowhere.

Though not referred to by name, the person that might be targeted is Cioffi, a full-time teacher of the film program and a member of AFT. She has been the lead contract negotiator of the Seattle AFT chapter and in 2005 she won the "Union Activist of the Year" award at SCCC. The filing of the labor practice complaint suggests that the AFT may believe Cioffi's actions as a union negotiatior may have been counterproductive in the eyes of SCCC, and that using the excuse of a budget crisis could have been a convenient way to get rid of her.

Under such a theory, it would be possible to think that Killpatrick — who had hardly been at the college before deciding to cut the program — relied on the counsel of those who have some long-held beef with Cioffi. However, due to legal reasons, neither Strickland nor Cioffi would comment on any specific accusations or ideas relating to the case.

Oppenheimer, however, said if he had a chance to meet with Killpatrick he would have a few words to say:

“I would tell him," Oppenheimer said, "Dr. Killpatrick, you’re new to this position, you obviously didn’t make this decision yourself, and you’re getting bad counsel from inside.”

But so far Oppenheimer's request for a meeting have been met with no response.

The labor practice complaint has been judged meritorious enough that the college must now answer the complaint. However, when the complaint will be addressed is an entirely different question, and one that could take months to be answered — most likely too late to save the program.

For first-year students, the cut creates ambiguity about the future. No other program in the area is comparable in terms of cost and, some claim, in terms of quality. Furthermore, no other program offers the same lock-step cohort classes, and even if they did, it is unlikely that all 21 first-year students from SCCC would go to the same college.

On Nov. 9, the first-year students sent a letter asking for clarification if they would be able to finish out their second year. Originally, in the "Frequently Asked Questions" document that the college had sent out to students, the administration said that all three programs being cut would be taught to completion. The students noted that this was important for them, because the foundation they had built in their first year from the lock-step classes for their cohort would be lost.

They received a response on Nov. 30 from Warren Brown, vice president for instruction and student services. He explained that the administration had met with their attorney and found they were not legally required to teach the first-year students to graduation, as none of them were fully enrolled when the decision to cut the program was officially announced on June 14. Two students were partially enrolled, but since they did not pay the full amount — and still had not by the time Brown sent the response letter — even they were not considered fully enrolled. Therefore, the school is only obligated to teach out the second-year students, who are just months away from completing their program now. 

Still, despite alerts posted on the website and sent through the mail about the cut, first-year students were unclear as to whether they would be able fo finish out their program. First-year students Jenna Pool and Jen Germaine both said they thought they would be able to finish the program, and that it was not made clear to them that they could only participate in one year, even after reading the alerts.

Adding to the confusion, Pool and Germain said they received voicemails from someone in the administration before class started. The woman on the phone said they would be able to finish out their classes, contrary to what others may have said.

Otherwise, save for the letter, the administration has not acknowledged the students at all throughout the process.

"It’s like they don’t even care about providing that education to us anymore," Germain said.

As to what Pool and Germain would do if the program did close, neither had a clue.

"People are kind of at a loss," Pool said.

As the end of the year approaches, those on the receiving end of the cut are taking increasing actions to prevent the "time bomb" from exploding (what wire do they cut: The green? The blue?), but there is little idea on the effect such actions will have on the administration.

The first-year students have submitted a formal complaint to the administration, which was received by deans Jody Laflen and Dale Zeretzke on Feb. 7. The students were informed by Student Life and Engagement Dean Lexie Evans in a letter that the administration had 15 days to respond to the complaint, but so far, no response has been given.

When a response is given, if the students are not happy with it, a conference with the parties involved will have to be scheduled. If this were to happen, it would be the first meeting between administration and students about the decision.

Supporters have also put together an online Facebook group, called "Save the SCCC Film & Video Program," and an open-to-all online petition, which over 400 people had signed by last Friday. The petition will be sent to Killpatrick, SCCC Chancellor Jill Wakefield, and the board of trustees. Also, first-year students are looking for a lawyer to represent their case, but the one they had contacted, while interested and enthusiastic, was unable to represent them due to legal conflicts. 

This evening (March 5), a free, townhall-style meeting about the program will be held in the Broadway Performance Hall at SCCC, hosted by Warren Etheredge from The Warren Report and The High Bar. Etheredge has been openly supportive of the program in the past and has put several graduates to work on his show. The meeting is meant to promote community discussion about the values of the program and the importance of it to Seattle, with the hopes of enlightening the administration. It will include a forum of Executive Director Amy Lillard of Washington Film Works, Cioffi, students, and actor Tom Skerritt, who has performed in M*A*S*H*, Alien, and Top Gun. Representatives from the school have been invited, but not confirmed.

There is no sign whether any of these moves might convince Killpatrick and the administration to revoke the cut or if these are merely the last twitches of a dying program.

Still, Cioffi, whose film work has included being arrested in Nigeria while investigating the oil industry's impact on the environment and the economy there, is determined.

"I can’t just let it go without the very best fight I can muster."


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