A previous version of this article is posted here.
When it comes to local government get-togethers, there are marathons, there are ultra-marathons, and then there is what happened last Thursday night and Friday morning at the Santa Barbara City College Board of Trustees meeting. Looking to bring to a head some seven months of hand-wringing and very public controversy over Dr. Andreea Serban’s future as the superintendent president of SBCC, the school’s Board of Trustees convened a last-minute special hearing at 4 p.m. last Thursday in the MacDougall Administration building.
Nearly 12 hours later, with Friday’s sunrise fast approaching, the verdict was finally in—Serban, at the helm since 2008, was placed on paid administrative leave effective immediately with a severance deal also being brokered to buy her out of her current contract in such a way that she will receive her current salary ($215,000 annually plus benefits) starting next July for 18 months or until she gets hired at a new job. In short, by way of a 5-0 vote (Trustee Joan Livingston abstained while Trustee Morris Jurkowitz was absent), Serban was shown the door and paid handsomely to walk through it, even as the school, like virtually every other public education institution in the state, faces a financial future that is ripe with uncertainty, potential pitfalls, and certain class cuts.
Of course, to many members of the City College community, whether they liked it or not, the writing had been on the wall for Serban’s departure for quite some time. Ever since four new trustees (Lisa Macker, Peter Haslund, Marsha Croninger, and Marty Blum) took seats on the seven-member board last January—their elections carried by a public that felt ignored by the school’s leadership and left out of the decision-making process during budget cuts and class reductions—there has been undeniable friction between them and the remaining old guard of trustees (Livingston, Jurkowitz, and Luis Villegas) and Serban.
The sides have clashed over everything from Serban’s annual performance review (which lasted no less than 12 hours during five separate closed-session hearings), how best to handle some $6 million of required budget cuts this year, the official minutes from past meetings, and whether or not it is appropriate for trustees to hold office hours on campus. Though confidentiality laws prevent any of the involved parties from explaining explicitly what really transpired during those almost 24 hours of private talks on the topic of Serban, it is safe to say that a majority of the trustees felt strongly that she had to go. And it would seem that, at least ultimately, Serban, who was a finalist for a job at a different California community college this past March, agreed.
Flash forward three days from Friday’s fateful announcement and the trustees, with Jurkowitz once again absent and Trustee Lisa Macker also out, reconvened on Monday afternoon to hold their regularly scheduled board meeting—something which they were forced to abandon during their historically long-lasting affair last week. With Jack Friedlander, the school’s executive vice president of Educational Programs since 1999, appointed to serve as the interim superintendent for at least the next month, the board pursued an agenda that was comprised almost entirely of items born out of the past half year of turbulence.
Topics for discussion included the ins and outs of the Brown Act—particularly relevant given recent accusations levied against the trustees from a group calling itself Take Back SBCC—recall efforts by the aforementioned Take Back group to unseat all of the new trustees save for Blum, a visit this fall to the school from the state’s Accreditation Committee to investigate the claims levied by Take Back SBCC, and a request from Trustee Joan Livingston for a future meeting to feature the dissection of what exactly the role of the Trustee President is. The latter, according to Livingston, is of particular importance after current Trustee President Haslund allegedly “took on roles [in recent weeks] that left other Trustees out of the governance process.”
All in all, it has been an action-packed and emotional week at Santa Barbara’s beloved community college on the hill, and one that is made infinitely more dire when you consider that a search for a new superintendent has just been added to what is an all ready daunting to-do list for the trustees. What follows is a blow-by-blow recounting of the events.
Thursday, July 28
4:01 p.m.: It is standing-room-only in the board room as Trustee President Peter Haslund calls the special hearing to order. With possible Public Employee/Discipline/Release on the agenda along with discussion about letters from lawyers to the trustees on behalf of Serban and Take Back SBCC, the crowd, many of whom carry signs saying things like “We Trust our Trustees,” “Fire Serban,” “Recall,” and “Don’t Remove Dr. Serban,” is visibly split between Serban supporters and people who aren’t similarly inclined. Fearing a fire code breach, campus security turns dozens of would-be attendees away at the door.
4:10 p.m.: The first of dozens of public speakers is former SBCC President Peter MacDougall. Seeing as how the building is named for the guy, the crowd silences quickly to hear him speak. Warning the trustees that they are on the brink of a decision that could “well shatter the sense of community and effectiveness” that SBCC has long enjoyed, MacDougall defends Serban and tells the trustees, “My specific advice is to slow down … The main pieces are already in place for the college to continue to thrive.”
4:19 p.m.: Ellen Stoddard, a faculty member at SBCC for 25-plus years, thanks the trustees for their continued deliberations and says, “As I see it, you are simply doing what we, the voters, asked you to do.”
4:23 p.m.: Continuing Education supporter, SBCC parent, and City of Santa Barbara Planning Commissioner Charmaine Jacobs speaks out strongly against Serban, telling the trustees, “What this is about is squandering community investment—investment of money, investment of time, and investment of goodwill.”
4:40 p.m.: Speaking glowingly about Serban and her commitment to the school, SBCC’s Allied Health Department Chair Jane Metiu, after 35 years at the school and having served under five different presidents, calls Serban “the best” she has ever worked with.
6:10 p.m.: After roughly two hours of back-and-forth public comment, the trustees adjourn into closed session. However, before departing, Trustee Livingston, agitatedly claiming she “has no idea why” the special hearing was called, makes a parliamentary inquiry into why Trustee President Haslund has convened the meeting and asks if the closed session can be tape recorded. Her concern, she says, is that they don’t “railroad something into a vote before there is time for a deliberation.” School attorney Craig Price steps in and dismisses both Livingston’s charge that perhaps the meeting is illegal as well as her desire to have the closed session recorded. The trustees, along with a handful of lawyers and Serban, depart.
7:46 p.m.: Haslund returns to the boardroom to inform the roughly 50 people still in attendance that “We are not anywhere close to being ready to come back in.” Pressed for more info, he figures it will be “probably another couple hours.” Upon hearing this, much of the crowd departs to grab dinner.
9:15 p.m.: For those still in the boardroom (pun somewhat intended), games of Go Fish have broken out while others have retreated into the screens of their various cell phones or iPads. Others have a pizza delivered.
9:40 p.m.: A bleary-eyed Haslund, complete with a loosened necktie and undone top button, enters the boardroom and a hush falls over the two dozen people still remaining. He announces that the regularly scheduled trustee meeting, meant to be held after the special hearing concluded, will now be held on Monday (August 1). Trustee Blum, also popping in from the closed session, figures, “another half hour or so.”
9:53 p.m.: Wearing a look of frustration, Livingston comes into the boardroom and sits with some faculty members. Asked why she is out of the closed session, Livingston is overheard telling people, “Because I wanted to be listened to. No one [in there] wants to listen to the trustee with 18 years of experience.”
10:07 p.m.: Serban’s notebook and other items are removed from her spot at the dais.
10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m.: The closed-session room features a revolving cast of attendees. Sometimes just the lawyers are in the room while all the others depart, other times just the four new trustees are in the room, while still other times feature a mix of trustees new and old and certain attorneys. Livingston and Trustee Villegas join the main boardroom for an extended visit at 1:10 a.m. and chat with various faculty members. Livingston opines in casual conversation with friends, “I’ve been through this two times already and it isn’t easy hiring a new superintendent, especially when you treat them like this.”
Friday, July 29
1:48 a.m.: City College Audio Video staffers decide to put The Colbert Report on the large overhead projector. There is much rejoicing.
2:28 a.m.: Blum stops in and offers, “This is pretty crazy. I hope we don’t have to do this too often.”
2:55 a.m.: Reruns of The Colbert Report give way to a Jackie Chan movie, The Accidental Spy.
3:24 a.m.: Steel-faced and weary, the trustees (minus Jurkowitz, who departed around 2 a.m.) and Serban file back into the boardroom. After Haslund announces that they “have reached a settlement with Dr. Serban,” attorney Craig Price takes to the microphone to elaborate on the details. Calling it a “positive and agreed-upon conclusion,” Price explains that Serban is on paid administrative leave effective immediately and that that will continue through June 2012. At that time, says Price, she will be bought out of her contract—set to expire in July 2014—by being paid her full salary for 18 months, or until she gets a new job. It is also revealed that she will get to retain her current title as superintendent president for the next year and that she will be available to “assist the college in the transition.” Additional terms of the severance package will be hashed out at a trustees’ meeting later this summer. With the clock just a few ticks past 3:40 a.m., Haslund addresses the few folks left in the audience, which includes Academic Senate President Dean Nevins and Vice President of Continuing Education Dr. Ofelia Arellano, “I think that does it … Thank you all for hanging in there.”
2:35 p.m.: SBCC Public Information Officer Joan Galvan sends out a press release announcing the “transition in college leadership.” It is made public that Dr. Jack Friedlander, a longtime SBCC administrator, will serve as the interim president until an actual transition plan is developed. Galvan adds in her announcement, “This will be the extent of our comments at the current time.”
Monday, August 1
4:30 p.m.: Friedlander, after being presented with an award at the start of Monday’s trustee meeting for 25 years of service to SBCC (it was an award he was scheduled to receive regardless of his unexpected appointment), takes the opportunity to speak about the transition and the departure of Serban. “She worked tirelessly. The college was her life and she did everything she could to contribute to the well-being of the school,” opined the now acting president to a smattering of applause from the audience.
4:40 p.m.: Dean Nevins, delivering to the board his regularly scheduled update as the president of the Academic Senate, explains that a summer work group comprised of two dozen teachers has already begun meeting to try and flesh out what exactly the anticipated class cuts for the summer and fall semesters of 2012 might look like, and then, after saying that he had sent out an email to faculty announcing the news about Serban’s departure, Nevins adds, “Overwhelmingly, there has been a positive response, especially in the spirit of moving forward in a unified manner.”