Not all community colleges are created equal. For some, these state-funded bastions of higher learning are little more than a refuge of last resort. For others, they offer an affordable path to a better life in a place called home. Luckily for us, here in Santa Barbara we have one of California’s glowing examples of a community college done right. Perched perfectly above the Pacific Ocean, Santa Barbara City College (SBCC) teaches more than 16,000 undergraduate students a year, many of whom have come here from around the country and the world to study on the Mesa campus. Just as important to the educational life of Santa Barbara, however, are the 35,000 or more residents of the South Coast who enroll in arguably the most robust continuing education program in the state. It is this program, with campuses in Santa Barbara and Goleta, that most directly and enduringly connects the college to our community.
Be it a language class for a hopeful learner, a carpentry class for a laid-off 40-year-old computer tech searching for a new career, or a swim class that provides an arthritic retiree with physical therapy, there isn’t a portion of our population here on the South Coast that isn’t served by what is commonly called “Adult Ed.” As Santa Barbara City Councilmember Grant House, who also serves as the city’s representative on the Continuing Education Citizens’ Advisory Council, put it recently, “You cannot overestimate the importance of Adult Education in Santa Barbara. It is part of our economic vitality, it is part of our social equity, and it is part and parcel of who we are and who we want to be as the Santa Barbara community.”
But all is not well in the house that Selmer “Sam” Wake built. In the two years since the longtime SBCC administrator and firebrand forefather of our continuing education program passed away, California has fallen famously upon economic hardship — a twist of fiscal fate that has wreaked havoc upon virtually every nook and cranny of public education. For Continuing Education at SBCC, the budget blues playing out in Sacramento have equaled class cuts, fees charged for historically free classes, and the cancellation of practically the entire summer semester. But for many, the greatest damage to Adult Ed, even beyond the bitter pill of cuts and fee hikes, is that the once sacred trust between the college and the community lies broken on the rocks of miscommunication. The reasons are many: an administration headed by relative newcomers to the school, an overly confident board of trustees, and a constituency that considers itself, with some merit, the heart, soul, and breath of Santa Barbara. Disillusioned and fearful that SBCC’s leaders are purposely tone-deaf to their pleas, an impressive, growing alliance of students, instructors, and a few former administrators have been crying foul to such a degree that even Board of Trustees President Joe W. Dobbs, who has served on the board for the better part of five decades, called the chorus of public concern “the most critical I have ever seen.” And now, even as signs of reconciliation appear to be rising from the wreckage, the gloom of a relationship ruined remains.
When retired SBCC administrator and former Continuing Education vice president Lynda Fairly told the board of trustees late last month that their handling of the recent controversy has her rethinking her longstanding intention to leave the school more than $1 million in her will, she put her finger on the essence of the problem: “Our problem today comes down to shared governance — we don’t have it.”
The Road to Ruin
Last fall, days before the start of the new quarter and long after course catalogs had been sent out, SBCC President Dr. Andreea Serban announced that approximately 100 Adult Ed classes would be cut. The last-minute move, carried out in the name of fiscal prudence, shocked both students and teachers alike. Aside from the unexpected disruption this sudden announcement would have on their personal lives, it was the out-of-the-blue management style which led to a sense of widespread outrage. Finally, in late October, Serban, flanked by other administrators and officials, met with a standing-room-only, emotionally charged crowd at the Schott Center to explain the reasons for the cuts. She said that the state had cut nearly $10 million of one-time and ongoing funding, or approximately 10 percent of the school’s budget, over the course of the past 2 years. Cuts were being made everywhere, and a couple million dollars would have to come out of the Adult Ed budget to “spread the pain evenly,” she said. Though not actually apologizing for the abrupt handling of the bad news, Serban did suggest that some of the communication problems were because of a new and much reduced staff. Continuing Education Vice President Dr. Ofelia Arellano had only been on the job for seven months, and due to retirements and other factors, most of the high-level jobs were unfilled, and many support employees had their hours reduced. When Arellano announced that “most of the courses cut this fall will be reinstated for the winter quarter,” the chill of distrust began to melt, helped in great part by both Serban and Arellano promising to continue public discussions on any and all future changes to the program. “At the end of the day, it is important to understand that these are not usual times and nobody likes to make difficult decisions,” Serban told the crowded room. “But we understand the profound impact Continuing Education has had over the years. Santa Barbara would not be what it is without City College, and City College cannot exist without you, the community.” And with that, everyone went home, feeling, at least for the time, like their voices had been heard. But the seeds of suspicion had been sown.
Two-and-a-half months later, those seeds began to sprout. In early February, at a SBCC Fiscal Committee meeting, Arellano presented a plan that called for the conversion of dozens of classes from free (state funding pays for everything but enrollment costs) to charging fees — in some cases as much as $275 a quarter. Many of these were the most popular classes, such as ceramics, writing, jewelry, and cooking. The fees were needed to help mitigate the budget cuts, according to Arellano, but even more importantly, most studio- and workshop-style classes hadn’t actually been eligible for their free status since 2005, despite the fact that previous SBCC administrators had been approving them. “We cannot continue to report these courses to the state for apportionment, [even without the budget cuts],” explained Arellano.
Once again, this news came as a big-time surprise to Adult Ed stakeholders, despite promises from administrators to keep them in the loop. At a meeting of the trustees just three days after the Fiscal Committee meeting, Continuing Education Instructors’ Association (CEIA) President Sally Saenger told the trustees, “I have been here for 27 years, and, up until last week, I hadn’t been consulted once about this.” Though she acknowledged that some conversions were needed, Saenger got to the heart of her criticism: “With all due respect, the main two people (Arellano and a newly hired Adult Ed director) who were in charge of proposing these changes have been with SBCC Adult Ed for less than one-and-a-half years combined … This just isn’t the way to do it.”
The lack of SBCC-specific experience that Saenger was referring to was Arellano’s tenure — which began in February of 2009 and brought Arellano back to town, where she earned both her undergraduate and graduate degrees at UCSB in the early 1980s — and that of Adult Ed Director Andy Harper, who started in November of this year after a stint with UCSB’s extension program.
It is important to realize that the community’s growing distrust of SBCC leaders increased as information about the cuts and fees continued to change — even as it changed for the better. When it was learned at a board meeting in late February that instead of 60 classes being converted from free to fee, only 20 (the majority of which were cooking classes) would be charged and that the fees would be a great deal less than anticipated, it did little to reduce the tensions. Certainly there was a sense of relief in the Adult Ed community, but the lack of transparency and consistency in the process left many feeling burned. But the public’s disappointment seemed to escape most of the seven trustees. Even when one boardmember, Luis A. Villegas, expressed his lack of a “clear understanding” on how these dramatic changes had happened and asked to have the vote postponed until more research was done, he couldn’t get a second to his motion. The 100 or so members of the public attending left the meeting confused, uneasy, and dismayed.
Continuing Education Vice President Ofelia Arellano.
In the meantime, a private letter was sent to the trustees, signed by Fairly, former SBCC president John Romo, and former Continuing Ed honcho Pablo Buckelew, which denied Arellano’s statement that certain “free” courses were incorrectly offered during their tenure. Though he declined to comment on the letter or any of the current goings-on at the school that he led for more than half a decade, Romo confirmed this week in an interview with The Independent that, “We [Romo, Fairly, and Buckelew] worked very, very hard to make sure everything we offered on both the credit and noncredit side of the school was in complete compliance with the [state’s] Chancellor’s Office, and as a result, it was.”
A Resistance Organizes
“It really doesn’t feel like they are listening to us or that much has changed,” observed CEIA President Saenger earlier this month. True, Serban had helped facilitate the formation of a Continuing Education Consultation Council. Four meetings had been held throughout the spring, during which some important compromises were worked out: Student and teacher representatives agreed to a cancellation of all but the most necessary summer classes in exchange for preventing more cuts in the fall. And, according to recent statements from Arellano, that is still the goal. However, just before the board was about to approve the group’s proposed plan, a regularly scheduled budget report was released, and it showed, to more shock and awe, that SBCC, despite forecasts of fiscal shortfalls, would actually have a projected $22.3 million in general fund reserves — a number which is nearly $18 million beyond the state-mandated minimum reserve of 5 percent. According to Saenger and Marsha Croninger, spokesperson for the newly founded Association of Continuing Education Students (ACES), had they known this information at the Consultation Council meetings, neither of them would have agreed to a summer cancellation. At best, this looked to them like bumbling leadership, and Adult Ed students in general were up in arms. Tears and outrage were par for the course at the last general meeting of the trustees as more than 100 concerned students turned out to complain not only about the administration’s decisions but also, more importantly, the way they are being made. Cornelia Alsheimer, the Chief Negotiator for CEIA, told the board, “The goodwill of a thousand families is being squandered by this.”
Nevertheless, the trustees, once again — citing these economically uncertain times — voted unanimously in support of the summer cancellations and bristled openly at accusations that they were purposely dismantling the Adult Education program. “The overwhelming majority of our Continuing Education classes will still be offered for free this fall,” Trustee Desmond O’Neill told the audience. “Believe me — we all recognize that Continuing Education is one of the crown jewels of what we do, and we are all proud of it. … Unfortunately, tough times call for tough decisions.”
What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate
There is perhaps no more stable community college board of trustees in all of California than the one serving SBCC. The state average tenure for a trustee is just longer than four years, yet SBCC has members with several decades of experience. Current Board President Dobbs was first elected in 1971; Kathryn O. Alexander started in 1965; Joan M. Livingstone and Villegas were both elected in 1993; O’Neill, in 1994; Morris M. Jurkowitz, in 2003; and current Vice President Sally D. Green, in 2006. They all express great devotion and commitment to SBCC in general and to Adult Ed in particular.
In answer to accusations that the board and the administration are purposely trying to disband the Adult Ed Program, or trying to sell off the Wake and/or Schott centers, or perhaps moving more credit-side certificate programs into the space, O’Neill, who has taken a number of Continuing Education classes, laughed out loud: “Rumors are better than facts, and conspiracy theories are best of all … Those places are going to remain exactly as they are.” And despite the board’s vast experience, O’Neill admitted that the recent controversy stemmed from poor communication as much as a poor economy. “To be honest … we tend to do things that we believe are the right thing to do or what the state tells us to do, but we don’t take the high ground and go out into the community and explain why we are doing it. That needs to change.”
Even though the outreach to students and faculty was initially less than ideal, O’Neill thinks things have been improving since then — a trend he believes is only going to get better as Arellano and the new Adult Ed directors, Harper and Ken Harris (hired in May), become more acclimated. And as far as the outcry over the budget surplus goes, it could all be explained simply. According to O’Neill, SBCC needs about $11 million in cash a month to operate. When state officials stall during their annual budget talks and fail to adopt a budget on time, as they have made a nasty habit of doing in recent years, there is a strong chance that the school will see its monthly apportionment checks get suspended — as they did in the summer of 2008 for 3 months. If they didn’t have money on hand to cover salaries and fixed costs during such a period, the school would cease to operate, says O’Neill. “When you look at that $11-million-a-month figure, suddenly our $22.3 million doesn’t look too big anymore. We would burn through it so fast … but I am not sure we have explained that clearly.”
During Serban’s leadership, the budget surplus has doubled, and she explained it as O’Neill did: “The reserves are more needed now than ever before,” she said in an email to The Independent this week, “and they will be put to good use.” As for communication issues, Serban defended her track record by pointing out that, though the groups are currently on hold for the summer, Continuing Ed Citizens’ Advisory Council and numerous board meetings and public forums have been held since last fall. “The lines of communication have been both expanded and enhanced,” she wrote.
Her bosses, the trustees, have voted their full confidence in Serban at her recent annual performance review, despite the persisiting public distrust and criticism of her communication skills. As per the law, the board of trustees did give a 24-hour notice for public comment on Serban’s evaluation, but not a minute more — something that critics bemoaned, especially given the current climate of things. But Dobbs, who has worked with five different SBCC presidents, expressed surprise that the public would even want to comment: “We do it every year, and nobody has ever cared before.” With an almost indignant shake of his head, he added, “Have the public evaluate the President? I mean, as if they know anything beyond what we do.” As for the evaluation itself, Dobbs described Serban, who is in her third year at the helm, as “one of the best and hardest-working” SBCC presidents he has known: “She has been doing a really great job, especially considering how she has got caught up in this web of [state] finances. Believe me when I tell you, she is really concerned about doing things right.”
For her part, Serban scoffs at the continued fear and public perception that she is “out to get” Continuing Education. At a trustees meeting in early June, when summer classes were officially cut, she was careful to point out that, even with the free-to-fee conversions in place, more than 1,900 of the 2,334 Continuing Education sections potentially offered each year will, at least for now, remain free.
Improving Conditions or More Trouble Brewing?
Cleary, many still do not agree with either Dobbs’s or Serban’s assessments. As ACES Spokesperson Croninger put it this week, “The issues are still shared governance, transparency, and now the budget. Until they can sit down and give us direct answers that add up, the concern isn’t going to go away.” CEIA President Saenger concurred, “When you go around making cuts and saying how little money you have and then it turns out you have millions and millions just sitting in a treasure chest that you failed to mention during negotiations, it just doesn’t look good to the community.”
Looking to remedy this difference of opinion, Dobbs and Trustee Vice-President Sally Green have pledged to sit down with the ACES group this week. Additionally, the trustees are planning on adding a new page to SBCC’s Web site where people can simply access what the trustees promise will be a major increase in their correspondence with the public. There is also a major community forum in the works for the fall where, in O’Neill’s words, “We will sit on a stage and just answer any and every question people have for us.”
In the meantime, according to still-developing numbers from Continuing Education Director Harper — who is currently working with instructors to figure out what exactly will be offered this fall and, of those classes, which will be free and which have the potential be fee-based — the current breakdowns look like this: 500-540 state-funded (free) classes and 80 fee-based offerings, though he admitted the latter number “could certainly be a bit more by the time we finalize things.” Falling in the fee-based category are the 20 classes approved for fees last winter, 25 or so language classes and environmental science offerings that have always been fee-based, and roughly a dozen dance and “recreational physical education” classes that the state Chancellor’s Office has indicated they are no longer willing to fund. Any new conversions from free to fee would require a vote of approval from the trustees. In what the SBCC administration hopes will be a peace offering, 13 “dance and recreational physical education” classes will remain free this fall thanks to SBCC picking up the tab as they work behind the scenes to restore funding. “I think this just goes to show that the school is working very hard to offer as big an array of classes as possible for as cheap as possible,” said Harper. With the Advisory Council disbanded for the time being, there are tens of thousands of Adult Ed students sitting through this summer, hoping he is right.