There is no doubt that Santa Barbara City College is a truly treasured local asset, a crown jewel of California’s community college system, and, at least for the time being, a campus very much divided.
With a heavy cuts-requiring budget process underway and the school’s president, Andreea Serban, still in the midst of a performance evaluation delivered by the Board of Trustees that has lasted 10 hours and counting (spread out over two separate closed door meetings with a third scheduled late next week), a standing-room-only crowd of concerned stakeholders attended the trustees’ regular board meeting Thursday afternoon to lobby hard for a divergent spectrum of interests that were often in direct conflict.
Speakers — many of them toting signs and most of them applauding loudly when they heard something they liked — inundated the public comment portion of the hearing with opinions and pleas that included everything from ringing endorsements to harsh criticism of Serban, along with passionate arguments for insulating both the school’s Continuing Education program and traditional credit class offerings from the unavoidable approaching cuts. After the last speaker was finished, Trustee President Peter Haslund perfectly summed up the situation he and his fellow decision-makers currently face. “I wish I could say you have made our job easier,” he said, “but you have all made sense, yet you don’t agree.”
The root of Thursday’s hullabaloo was twofold:
First, is the trustees’ ongoing evaluation of Serban. After meeting on Monday for five hours and again on Wednesday for another five, the board — which features four new members, all of whom gained their seats last November via a wave of public dissatisfaction with the way last year’s budget cuts were handled and, in part, Serban’s role in that — have scheduled yet another round of private talks with the school president for next Friday, June 3. With all parties involved required by law to remain mum about what exactly is going down behind closed doors, it is impossible to know the true nature of the dialogue.
However, based on the solid turnout of pro-Serban people — many of whom are either faculty or staff — during public comment sessions on Monday and Thursday, it is safe to say that there is fear out there that the president is being unfairly dragged across the coals of criticism by her board. That being said, there was also a definite camp of commenters decidedly hopeful that criticism is what is happening during the historically protracted evaluation.
The second and ultimately more pressing cause for Thursday’s scene was the school’s unresolved budget process and the cuts that are coming. Needing to make anywhere from $6.8 million to $10.5 million in reductions (currently, all signs point to the lesser amount), the trustees have endorsed an approach that will, after three years, cut some 440 sections of credit classes and convert roughly 252 previously free Continuing Ed courses to a fee-based model. Nothing is final yet though and, as such, no one knows what specifically will be cut.
The debate has a rift in that some people feel that the credit side is being too aggressively impacted while others are worried that the beloved Continuing Education side of things will suffer too much. With this in mind, many of the speakers on Thursday toed their respective lines and made the case for whichever camp they pledge allegiance to, be it credit or noncredit.
There was also a section of speakers who spoke to the need of compromise and realizing that times are economically horrid and things are going to have to be cut and converted no matter what. For this minority population, the message was simple: We need to quit the fighting and name-calling and work together to keep this school special. As SBCC English professor Kim Monda put it, “It is time to move past [the accusations] and for things to become constructive. There is no one person responsible for this situation. There is something much bigger to blame … It is time to work with [Serban and the trustees].”
Ultimately, in the end, the outcry was, as the saying goes, sound and fury signifying nothing. At least not yet. The board had no action items on its agenda related to the budget, and a critical Continuing Education-related item — a proposal to create a trustee-appointed community task force to develop a plan to sustain and even enhance the Adult Ed offerings over the next five years via a variety of funding options including fundraising — was tabled for a future agenda after Trustee Luis Villegas expressed his upset that the entire board was not going to be present to discuss it. (Trustee Joan Livingston, who is on the record as being opposed to the idea of the task force, was absent on Thursday.)
The trustees’ next meeting, when the budget is slated for formal discussion and possible action, is scheduled for June 9.