If, as they say, things in life are all about the journey rather than the destination, well, Santa Barbara City College’s Board of Trustees are in the midst of a budget process akin to a vacation from hell where your flight gets canceled, your kids get sick, and your bags get lost, all before you ever arrive at your destination. With their eyes on adopting a new budget by early June, the trustees spent a total of eight hours, spread out over two days this past week, working out how exactly to translate several millions’ worth of required cuts.
Though the details of what exactly will bleed once the budgetary blade officially swings remains to be seen, the trustees — after long, tedious, and often tension-filled talks — found consensus on a plan of sorts. Specifically, $6.8 million in spending cuts will be implemented slowly during the next three years, resulting in the gradual introduction of a fee-based funding model for some 252 sections of previously free Continuing Education classes and the outright cancellation of roughly 440 classes from the credit side of the school. “We are just trying to do the best we can with less funds and be as fair as possible,” lamented Trustee Morris Jurkowitz.
The fact-finding odyssey began last Thursday afternoon with a lengthy round of public comment on the subject. As has been the case for much of the past 18 months, the Continuing Education camp, which already endured a certain amount of class cuts and free-to-fee conversions last year, turned out in force to preach the importance of preserving the mostly free, life-enriching, and occasionally career-creating not-for-credit classes that have become one of SBCC’s most treasured and important offerings to the community at large. In short, the message, particularly driven home by Association of Continuing Education Students (ACES) representative Cathy McCammon, was, as she put it, “We just don’t want to see an adult program priced out of the reach of its students or eliminated all together.”
Another voice present during public comment, albeit to a lesser degree, was that of the credit side of the school and the students, already on the hook for a $10-per-unit fee hike effective this fall, who stand to see their academic plans potentially imploded by fewer class offerings. Painting a picture of what City College means for him, one such public commenter, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and recently laid-off state firefighter, explained how credit-side classes are allowing him to work toward a new line of work here in town, where he hopes to raise his family. “For many of us,” the young soldier explained, “the credit side is the only affordable path.”
For its part, the Board of Trustees — which features four new members on the dais, their successful elections born very much out of the public outcry over the handling of last year’s budget blues — did little during day one other than listen, react to the public comment, and engage in some good old-fashioned infighting. Highlights included Jurkowitz, defending the proposed unilateral cutting as the unavoidable result of a state that is on the brink of financial ruin, bristling at the rhetoric of McCammon and telling her directly, “The thing I think you aren’t realizing, Cathy, is that times are different now. Things have changed, and we have to change with them.” Then there was a particularly spirited exchange between newbie Trustee Marty Blum and longtime Trustee Joan Livingston when the latter accused the former mayor of allegedly skipping committee-level meetings and not making her responsibilities to SBCC a top priority — the back-and-forth escalated to the point where Blum actually got up and left the room for a short time. The hearing concluded when, citing fatigue and hunger, the board adjourned before really ever rolling up their sleeves.
The action resumed on Monday afternoon with SBCC President Andreea Serban, along with Vice President of Business Services Joe Sullivan and Controller Leslie Griffin, fleshing out the details of the school’s current fiscal standing and the logic behind their preferred tentative budget. Following a course of action that has been kicked around publicly since earlier this spring, Serban — who recently reaffirmed her commitments to SBCC after she flirted in March with taking a new job at a different California community college because, as she explained it, things weren’t working out very well between her and the new trustee majority — described a course of action that would use hefty hunks of the school’s $30-million-plus cash reserves to temporarily offset the urgency of the impacts and allow the cuts to be “phased in” gradually during the next three school years.
Specifically, the plan would ensure that this summer and upcoming fall semesters would not be impacted for either credit-side or noncredit-side students. Then, after department-level discussions on the topic at the end of the summer are completed, the cuts and free-to-fee conversions (presumably better informed thanks to the aforementioned consultations) would begin in earnest in spring 2012 as follows: 70 credit sections canceled and 60 as yet unidentified noncredit, non-enhanced Continuing Education classes (which make up the bulk of the Adult Ed course catalog) would get fees assessed.
From there, the plan calls for a similar, though slightly bigger-in-scale, round of cuts and conversions to be carried out over the course of the subsequent two years. Defending the reasoning behind the go-slow approach, Serban explained, “This is a time where a sudden and very sharp decline in real expenditures would create a very dangerous imbalance for our institution.” Also featured in the tentative budget is a permanent reduction of $500,000 from the fund for paying SBCC hourly employees and student workers, a cut of just over $1 million from the school’s various “Supplies and Materials and Other Operating Expense” accounts, as well as a transfer of some $3.5 million from the school’s general fund to its construction and campus-maintenance programs.
Next up was a PowerPoint presentation by newbie trustees Lisa Macker and Marsha Croninger. With the former having a strong background in accounting and both women having been outspokenly critical during last year’s election campaign of the handling of SBCC’s public budget discussion, the goal was to paint a more easily accessible picture of the current and complicated situation, while also, and perhaps more importantly, making clear the reason why they are both hesitant to embrace Serban’s plan.
Drawing frequent criticism from many staffers in the room as well as Serban and fellow Trustee Livingston, Macker and Croninger made the case for what they called a “big-picture” assessment of the budget. To them, after running the numbers, the fact that in three years’ time the school’s reserves, under the go-slow plan, would be potentially eaten away to nothing is a major reason for alarm. Add to this the potential for this year’s budget cuts to balloon upward of $10 million before all is said and done and the strong likelihood for the state to pass along even more cuts in the years ahead, and you begin to see where they are coming from and why they are lobbying for potentially more drastic cutting this year as well as a hiring freeze. “I am just very concerned that this tentative budget doesn’t get us where we want to be,” summed up Croninger.
In the end, the trustees unanimously endorsed Serban’s plan, albeit to various degrees, while also pledging to continue hashing out the “philosophical” underpinnings of the budget in the months ahead in hopes of better defining what exactly City College wants to be in this day and age of the ever-shrinking budget. After all, as Livingston cryptically opined in the meetings’ closing moments, “The reality is, three years from now, we are probably going to have a college that is very different from the one we have had the luxury to enjoy in the past.”
The Board of Trustees will once again discuss the budget with hopes of an actual approval at their June 9 meeting.