Wednesday, January 21, 2009

College chancellor up for 18 percent raise

Concerned about losing their well-liked chancellor, board members in the Contra Costa Community College District will vote next week whether to give her an 18 percent raise.

Helen Benjamin, who has been widely complimented for steadying what was a turbulent district, would see her salary go to $247,000 from just less than $209,000. She took the reins of the three-college district in 2005.

Although the decision comes amid uncertain budget times, board members and others said the district must keep Benjamin from fleeing to greener pastures. Benjamin's salary is lower than that of nearly every other Bay Area chancellor, according to figures from the state chancellor's office.

"Our chancellor is well-known and well-wooed," said board member Tony Gordon. "I know the headhunters are out there and busy."

The proposed pay increase includes two separate actions: a 10 percent raise retroactive to July 1 last year and a new 42 month contract that raises Benjamin's salary again. Both actions will be considered by the board next Wednesday.

Leadership retention has been a problem for the state's 110 community colleges. With few experienced chancellors and presidents available, seasoned administrators have been heavily recruited.

In the two-college Chabot-Las Positas district, Chancellor Joel Kinnamon was paid a base salary of $230,000 last year. Chancellor Elihu Harris in the four-campus Peralta district was paid $240,000.

Benjamin, Advertisementthe former president of Contra Costa College in San Pablo, has been credited with strengthening the district's once-troubled finances and improving morale among instructors and other employees.

Unlike in the California State University system, where the faculty has sharply criticized administrative salaries, Contra Costa's faculty union head said Tuesday that instructors understand the need to hang on to effective leaders. Instructors in the district like Benjamin, said Jeffrey Michels, president of United Faculty.

But Michels also noted that most Contra Costa employees are underpaid.

"It would be nice if we could all keep pace" with Benjamin's pay increase, he said. "That's a nice pace."

College districts generally prefer to keep their chancellors rather than go through an expensive and time-consuming search, said Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California, which represents administrators.

"If you look at the dollar amount compared to the cost of a search, it could be worth it" to give Benjamin a raise, Lay said. "Politically, it can be a tough thing to do during bad economic times. But she's been a tenacious supporter of that district."

Board members said they were not aware of any other firm job offers for Benjamin, who was in Washington, D.C., for the presidential inauguration Tuesday. The new contract could help fend off competing suitors, said Sheila Grilli, the board president.

"We know other people are looking at her," she said. "It may not look politically correct, but in these bad times, we have to pay her what she's worth."

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