By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
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However, employees at the Academy of Art College describe an institution where Elisa Stephens fires employees at whim -- then forgets they're gone. (In one case, faculty members kept a fired employee on staff by hiding him whenever Stephens happened by.)
Stephens says she takes pains to retain staff in the tight Bay Area job market.
Yet staffers say they're so ill-paid that faculty loyalty is veneer-thin -- so thin, in fact, that one former employee says she was paid to visit classrooms to make sure teachers were actually teaching the courses they claimed to be.
"One of the things that had been a problem was that professors were saying they had classes, and they weren't having the class. So that was my entire job. Go to every class, every day, and make sure the class was actually happening," says the ex-employee. "The professors hated me, because I was a spy."
This is not surprising, other faculty members say.
"It's on a contract system, and it's really frustrating because they don't provide a lot of benefits unless you're on a 52-week contract. Most of us are under what they need to pay benefits or insurance. I think it was a 48-week contract. You could be there three or four years and never get benefits. I saw this happen 25 times," says one employee.
Stephens acknowledges that her staff consists mostly of part-time employees, but says that is because the school hires "pro" artists who also earn money elsewhere.
The school is even less discriminatory in accepting students.
"I had the feeling if someone was motivated and had talent to begin with, they could come away learning something," says one ex-staffer. "But I had the feeling that the majority [of students] were people who saw it as a glamorous field. There's no portfolio review. They'll take anyone whose check clears. I'd say a good 10 percent of the people came out with a pretty solid portfolio of work."
Stephens says students come to the academy because it does a good job of placing them after graduation.
For some employees, the school's innermost nature was revealed at the annual Christmas party, held last December in the First Congregational sanctuary weeks before the purchase was finalized.
Or, in the words of one staffer who quit not long after sending me the following e-mail:
"We're told we're not allowed to bring a guest. We're told the party will be at the Congregational Church that the school just bought. We're told we'll be playing bingo, and the prizes are things like a week trip to Paris for two, a week trip to Hawaii for two, a private jet to Spago for dinner for six, multiple color printers, DVD players, digital cameras, Mac G4s, $400, $500, and $600 dinner gift certificates to places like Hawthorne Lane ... oh, and a brand new sports car! Wow! So all that, but no bonuses, and you can't bring a guest ... mind-blowing.
"Still at the Christmas party: the president's dad, Mr. Stephens, [chairman] of the academy, makes a speech saying this: "Well, it's been a good year for us, everyone worked very hard. Congratulations! [Applause.] Now, if you work even harder, next year we will all be driving Mercedes!' Problem with his statement, besides the obvious, is the school chronically underpays its employees. At this job, I make $10,000-15,000 less a year than I could get at just about anywhere else in my field. The remark was just preposterous and clueless and perfectly symbolic of how everything is done at this school.
"Again, at the Christmas party, it was very offensive that we were playing bingo on top of Bibles while drinking our wine sitting in the pews. They also had a huge cross on the stage, but with the academy logo projected really, really large above it. I'm not a terribly religious person, but I found all that extremely offensive."
Elisa Stephens explains that her dad's comment was meant to be humorous: "We were bingo-ing a Toyota Celica. I think next year maybe it will be a Mercedes."
In the words of Joe Story, chairman of the board of trustees of First Congregational Church, the congregation that sold its building to the art school: "I think the academy have been wonderful partners in helping us through this transition."
A perfect marriage of desperation and depredation.
On the subject of depredation, imagine for a moment that a private corporation in San Francisco had joined a $60 million lawsuit against the city that threatened to jeopardize the city's fiscal health. Imagine that the corporation had done this after receiving enough city subsidies to put even the most aggressive corporate welfare queen to shame. Would supervisors honor that corporation by taking special measures to attend its yearly gala event?
In the case of the corporation in question, the city sold $15 million in bonds to build infrastructure around its business facilities, borrowed an additional $12 million for property improvements, then spent $1.5 million in planning costs -- all on the corporation's behalf.
In left-wing San Francisco, scourge of the corporate leech, this corporation would be dead meat, right? Well, not exactly. In the case of the San Francisco Giants, the city's punishment involved moving Monday's 2 p.m. Board of Supervisors meeting to 10 a.m. so that the supes could make the Giants/Padres season opener. The Giants are among the several hundred businesses in San Francisco that have sued the city over its dual business tax structure. With $29 million in subsidies under their belt, meanwhile, the Giants posted $27 million in year 2000 operating income.