In many ways, the race for four seats on the seven-member Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) Board of Trustees began late last summer. That’s when the administrators — without much warning to anyone — announced that roughly 13 percent of the immensely popular Continuing Education program would be cut from the fall quarter. The move would affect about 100 classes, and it came literally hours before registration was to begin. Explained away after the fact as a hybrid decision based simultaneously on fiscal responsibility and marching orders from the state Chancellor’s Office, the major dose of bad news kick-started what’s proved to be the most rocky and controversy-riddled 14 months in the Board of Trustee’s nearly 50-year history.
While many of the cut classes have been restored and fee hikes been scaled back, the ill will from a broad swath of Santa Barbarans — the majority of whom helped pass the college’s multimillion-dollar facility-improvement bond, Measure V, two short years ago — has done anything but fade. And some say matters have only gotten worse. As the Continuing Education story unfolded, SBCC — again, citing direction from Sacramento — grossly changed its relationship with the four popular Parent-Child Workshops (Starr King, The Oaks, San Marcos, and Lou Grant) that the school had helped make a reality for decades. On top of that, there was a funding flare-up surrounding the school’s Center for Sustainability, public catcalls of no confidence in SBCC President Andreea Serban, and the cancellation of most summer classes despite evidence that the school was sitting on a budget reserve worth many millions of dollars. Then, and perhaps most disastrously, there was the mishandling of all this bad news. At best, the public was not properly courted as these decisions were being made; at worst, the public was outright and purposely ignored.
And so it goes in democracy that, on the heels of such a sordid run of affairs, there comes a contentious election for the reins of governance on the Board of Trustees, the first such ballot battle since the board’s incorporation. With no term limit, the incumbents — half of whom were appointed to their seats and all of whom have rarely, if ever, had to fight for their seats — are an impressively long-serving bunch with more than 100 years of combined trustee experience among them. (In fact, Kathryn “Kay” Alexander might just be the longest serving community college trustee in the state.) Collectively, they wear one very big feather in their caps: the indisputable fact that, during their tenures, SBCC has become a national example of a community college done remarkably right. Their tight-belted fiscal oversight has not only positioned SBCC for continued success but, more immediately, just helped the school weather the state’s lengthy budget impasse (which blocks monthly checks from Sacramento) without missing much of a beat.
On the other side are the four challengers, who were handpicked by a grassroots group called Citizens for Santa Barbara City College that formed in the throes of the assorted controversies. Each of the challengers is supposed to be specifically equipped to usher in a new era on the board, one in which the community is once again made to feel a part of the decision-making process, administrators are held more accountable for the logic behind their actions, and the deep roots that SBCC has grown in Santa Barbara are not overlooked whenever Sacramento demands it.
While the two teams smack of slates, the individual candidates all maintain that they are just that: one person running for one seat. And, in perhaps the most confusing local elections nuance there is, your ballot will feature all eight candidates, but will ask you to pick one (or two) for the region they hope to serve. (The SBCC Board of Trustees is composed of a Carpinteria/Summerland region trustee, a Montecito region one, three from Santa Barbara, and two from the Goleta/Hope neighborhood.) That is to say, you will vote at large but, when elected, the trustees will serve a specific district. What follows are profiles of each of the candidates and their respective regions to help you prepare for Election Day.
Carpinteria/Summerland Area Trustee
Sally D. Green, Incumbent
The incumbent with the shortest term of service, Sally Green is seeking only her second term on the board after having been appointed in 2006 to fill the vacated Carpinteria-area seat. Despite the recent controversies, the freshly retired public school administrator and teacher — most recently, Green was principal at Carpinteria’s Canalino School — thinks things, at least overall, are going swimmingly. Pointing to the healthy budget reserves that the school used to stay afloat during three months of zero funding from the state, Green explained, “We have done a great job and have really put the school in a great place, all things considered.” As for SBCC’s President Serban, Green feels similarly positive. “We are all very happy with her,” she said. “She is a very smart lady, and she truly loves the school.”
As to the public outcry — which Green admits only recently hit home for her during the tempestuous candidate forums — she chalks it up to a combination of a board that wasn’t appropriately “welcoming” to the public and a public that doesn’t fully understand the complex issues at play. “When people come to the board, we have to make sure they feel welcome, and my sense is that people haven’t always felt that way,” said Green, who will become the board’s next president if reelected. “That needs to change. But at the same time, when they come in and are angry and don’t understand the situation, it can be difficult. … We do a lot of work on these things during subcommittees and workshops that most people don’t see.”
Peter O. Haslund, Professor Emeritus
At first, Peter Haslund wasn’t too keen on the idea of running for the Board of Trustees. Little more than a year into retirement after a storied career in education, Haslund — who taught at SBCC for 40 years, founded the Global Studies Program, was president of the Faculty Senate, and has a PhD from UCSB — thought the folks calling him to gauge his interest in running must have had the wrong number. But after making some phone calls, Haslund realized that he “might just be able to make a significant difference.” Specifically, if elected, the Danish-born Haslund says he would be the only boardmember who, due to years in the teaching trenches, “has actually done the tough work of why this college exists in the first place.” Not only would this help him with the learning curve of being a new trustee, but Haslund said it would inform his decision-making with a dose of reality that’s not always present on the current board.
Less than convinced that both the Continuing Education and Parent-Child Workshop rows had to go down the way they did, Haslund, who’s devoted to the “shared-governance process,” has been overwhelmed with evidence that “this board’s decisions, even if they are okay — and I have some serious issues with that — haven’t been achieved in an okay fashion.” Pointing to his experience on the Academic Senate, not to mention his political science studies, Haslund figures such a breakdown in communication would not happen with him on the board. “Sometimes it is necessary to do things a little more slowly so that people can walk away feeling that they have been heard,” he said. “That is truly a critical component of the process.”
Santa Barbara Area Trustee
Marsha Croninger, Environmental Attorney
On her way to Big Sur from Los Angeles more than a decade ago, mostly retired environmental lawyer Marsha Croninger stopped off in Santa Barbara and decided to stick around. A veteran of SBCC’s yoga, jewelry, and basket-weaving classes, Croninger started attending Board of Trustee meetings late last year as the controversy began to swirl around Continuing Education. What she saw really opened her eyes. “There was just such a lack of welcome and lack of respect for the public,” recalled Croninger, who cofounded the Associated Continuing Education Students group. “It didn’t take long for me to realize that the problem was much broader than Continuing Ed.”
SBCC quickly became “a full-time job” for Croninger, who’s attended virtually all of the trustee meetings, workshops, and subcommittee gatherings since February, gotten to know faculty and staff, and dove deep into the wild world of community college finances so that she now considers herself “at least as knowledgeable as any of the incumbents” on the budget. Pointing to her 30-year law career, which featured a decade of working on complex environmental policy in Sacramento, Croninger summed up her strengths simply: “I have a deep respect for individuals and their input, and I think I know how to ask good questions and get answers.”
Desmond O’Neill, Incumbent
No incumbent has been more outspoken about the slate of challengers than Des O’Neill. Not so much critical of them as individuals, O’Neill — who actually turned up to watch the four nonincumbents file their candidate papers — is more perturbed by the very fact that they are running. Seeking his fifth term on the board, the retired lawyer and once-upon-a-time tenured City College history teacher recently commented on the business of being a trustee: “Dare I say it, but some experience and wisdom might actually be a good thing.”
One of the more engaged members of the current board — or as he puts it, “the person who moves the business along” — O’Neill boils the race down to a disagreement over the handling of Continuing Education cuts and whether the school should have tapped the reserves to stave off such decisions. But he believes the board’s decisions were vindicated as SBCC successfully navigated several months without state money during Sacramento’s budget impasse; no teachers or other employees had to feel the heat, which O’Neill says is a direct result of the board’s careful penny-pinching. And that’s why O’Neill says SBCC is “without question the best community college in the state.”
As for the Continuing Ed fallout and meltdown in goodwill between SBCC and Parent-Child Workshop particpants, O’Neill explained, “We are the elected officials, so obviously, we get the blame. But there isn’t anything we or the challengers could have done about that. It comes from the state Chancellor’s Office, and we have to follow what they say … People need to understand we aren’t doing these things frivolously. We love this school and are very concerned.”
Marty Blum, Retired Mayor/Teacher
Retirement didn’t last too long for Marty Blum. Less than a year after finishing two terms as mayor of Santa Barbara, the former teacher is the most publicly recognizable figure in the race. Like her fellow challengers, Blum found her way into the race via the Continuing Education controversy and quickly discovered that all was not right on the Mesa. “It certainly seems like they all vote together and basically rubber-stamp what staff and the administration is telling them,” said Blum of the current board. “I’m not sure that is always the best thing for the school or for our community.”
Upon considering a campaign, Blum asked friends and teachers associated with SBCC about the current state of affairs and found no shortage of people eager to see her run. “There is no doubt it is a great community college — we are doing something very right there,” explained Blum. “But I am hearing a lot of whispering and fear from staff over there, and that is something new, especially this top-down management style. It seems like, if you disagree with the administration, you might get whomped on.” To fight that feeling, Blum — who has served for a number of years on the school’s Continuing Education Advisory Council (which her critics say she has rarely shown much interest in until now) — hopes to “make the trustees more accountable and help bring the community back into the college.”
Joe W. Dobbs, Incumbent
“The majority of people out there are happy with the job we are doing,” believes incumbent Joe Dobbs, a trustee since 1971. A retired ophthalmologist, Dobbs first moved to Santa Barbara in 1963 and was soon serving on SBCC’s Continuing Education Advisory Council, which led to his trustee appointment four decades ago. It’s this very history and experience that Dobbs feels are his strongest assets and one reason why SBCC is so fiscally flush compared to other community colleges. “Institutional memory really is a strength for this board. It takes a long time to learn this game,” said Dobbs. “And now, especially with so much going on with the state budget, our experience makes a big difference. We have been here before, and we know what to do.”
Often on the receiving end of criticism during the Continuing Education controversy for his occasionally flippant remarks to the public — he famously responded to a citizen’s request to extend the standard 20-minute public comment period by offering, “Okay, we will give you 21 minutes” — Dobbs acknowledges that the board hasn’t always handled public relations with the greatest of care. “Obviously, this past year has shown us that we have to become better communicators,” he said. But pointing to the school’s healthy financial standing and recent successful accreditation efforts, Dobbs argued, “I think the college really is on the right track.”
Goleta/Hope Area Trustee
Lisa Macker, Accountant/Business Owner
Spend five minutes with Lisa Macker and you quickly realize that she’s not “your average bean counter.” As a certified public accountant, Macker is looking to bring bookkeeping firepower to the board, but her energy and passionate personality seem more fitting for a three-ring circus than spreadsheets. Currently the treasurer for the Alpha Resource Center of Santa Barbara and the accounting manager for the Land Trust for Santa Barbara County, Macker is confident that, if elected, she would instantly become the board’s de facto financial expert. Though there’d be a learning curve, she feels the equally messy budgetary realities of nonprofit bookkeeping — especially during cash-strapped times like these — have more than prepared her for the rigors of community college budgeting. “I’ve already gone through the school budget pretty closely,” said Macker. “It is fairly basic to me. I speak the language.”
Unlike her fellow challengers, the mother of three — who attended SBCC in the mid 1970s, is an alumni of the Parent-Child Workshops, and currently has two children enrolled at the college — did not enter the race because of the Continuing Education controversy. “That hasn’t been my thing at all and certainly isn’t why I am in the race,” said Macker, whose father also taught math at SBCC for years. Instead, after being approached by the Citizens for SBCC group, Macker’s decision to run was based on a simple investigation of the current board and the opinions of friends and family who have been involved with the school over the years. “There are a lot of people on there who have been there for a long, long time and maybe, as a result, the community collaboration isn’t what it should be,” said Macker. “And there certainly isn’t anyone with a pure accounting background.”
Explaining that one of her children is a college freshman at SBCC and the other attends the college while still in high school, Macker wonders what type of school her third child will find on the Mesa. “I know I see the world differently than the people currently there,” said Macker. “I mean, the future is in my home every day.”
Kathryn “Kay” Alexander, Incumbent
When SBCC’s trustees first incorporated nearly 50 years ago, Kathryn “Kay” Alexander was elected to the board, and she has been there ever since. “It feels pretty weird,” she laughed, “but I am the only charter member of the board that is still alive.” A mother and a grandmother of nine, Alexander is anything but put off by the historic challenge facing the SBCC incumbents on November 2. “People are becoming involved who should have been involved long ago,” she said. “And that is a good thing.” But Alexander warns that a wholesale swap out of a board majority — especially by a group of neophytes — wouldn’t be good for business. “It takes anybody time to learn about this job, this school, and its culture,” said Alexander, who isn’t the most steadfast in her attendance of meetings but is usually the one asking the toughest questions of the administration. “Overturning all of us in just one year would be dangerous, especially right now.”
Believing that the public outcry is more a side effect of financially troubling times at the state level rather than symptoms of failed SBCC board policies, Alexander explained, “These are real problems that are hitting every community college in the state. There is just no walking away from them, and I don’t think there is any way to solve them without making some people unhappy.” As for the Continuing Education issue, Alexander acknowledges mishandling the situation when cuts were first levied but believes that was the result of administrative turnover (particularly, new hires in high places) and the regretful fact that “the board was very little involved in the process.” But she sees this as the exception rather than the norm. Based on her unprecedented years of experience, Alexander explained, “I feel more than satisfied that this board does its homework.”