Thursday, 10 December 2009

The Shifting Sands of Educational Policy: San Mateo Community College District

In my ten years working as a part-time faculty member at the College of San Mateo, I had never been to a Board of Trustees meeting at the San Mateo Community College District. Had I known it might stretch on from 6 p.m. to 10:45 p.m., I might have thought twice. I’m glad I stuck around much later than the rest of the students and faculty who came to make their voices heard, because I discovered just how little of what was said (and said quite eloquently and movingly, in some cases) was internalized by the members of the Board. Although they claim that they maintain a policy of not directly addressing the statements made during the open comments section, in fact, they spent a great deal of time addressing them—long after the speakers had left the building.

College of San Mateo English Professor, Merle Cutler, delivered a laudable speech identifying struggling students served by CSM who have gone on to reach amazing heights in their academic careers. Unfortunately, were these students to arrive at CSM’s door today, with the current budget crisis stripping the programs that could assist them in bettering their lives, none of them would be where there are now. She went on to praise the San Francisco City College and its Chancellor, who took a 25% voluntary pay cut, in marked contrast to our own Chancellor and administrators, who have collectively raised their salaries, on average, 30% over the last 5 years. Would she support the policies of a man willing to make these kinds of sacrifices? “Yes, I would,” Ms. Cutler answered emphatically.

I'm not sure that I fully agree with Ms. Cutler's high praise of SFCC, but she did make some important points. It should be noted that the College of San Mateo, which serves roughly 11,000 students, receives just over $25M allocated from District funds; the District Office receives just under $8M—almost one third as much as the entire college. At last month’s Student Budget Forum, CSM President Mike Claire made the case that, were we to get rid of every administrator in the college, we would still have a shortfall of over a million dollars, because administrators have “retreat rights”. This means they can return to their teaching positions with seniority intact if they are no longer working in administration—it also means other faculty members with less seniority may be bumped from their positions. (Note that the college is also required to retain a certain number of administrators in order to maintain its accreditation status.)

What this doesn’t address is Ms. Cutler’s confidence issue. Taking a pay cut or pay freeze isn’t so much about the money saved. It’s about the gesture. It’s about showing your constituents and those who look to you for leadership that you’re willing to be a part of the solution, no matter how small that part may be. It’s a basic social principle: Each of us gives up a little so that no one has to give up a lot. (Near the end of the long evening, Trustee Holober offered, “I may be opening Pandora's Box... There is room for cutting at the District level and the college level if we’re talking about benefits and wages.” Cut wages and benefits at the District level? Given their history, I have to wonder how seriously that might be considered. And at the college level? Pandora’s Box, indeed.)

Of much greater concern to me was the issue of the Board’s adoption of a document entitled “Reaffirmation of Core Values and Principles” (click here to read the full text). While the concept of restating decision-making criteria is sound, there already exists a well-defined mission for this District (click here to read it in full). In some of the first statements made that evening, District Shared Governance Council Co-Chair, Patty Dilko, mentioned Skyline’s “Letter of Concern”, written to protest that evening’s planned adoption of the Core Values document. Ms. Dilko felt, however, that faculty, as represented through the Academic Senate, were satisfied that their voices were being heard and that the process by which budget cuts were being planned and reviewed was working well. (As a faculty member sitting at ground zero, I’m not sure “working well” is the phrase I would use.)

Board President Patricia Miljanich acknowledged receipt of numerous emails pleading to hold off a vote in order to run these Core Values through the shared governance process. She responded, “This is setting a policy, which is what we do.” The Board plans to use this document to deal with upcoming issues, she said. “We have not created this in a vacuum.” Ms. Dilko noted that the District Senate is not asking them not to vote, but said the Senate will be discussing in their upcoming meeting the items contained within the document. “We are engaged in understanding them,” she said.

I would be happy to offer my own assessment of just a couple of parts of this document, in the interests of furthering the Senate’s “understanding”, especially in light of the fact that the visiting speakers seemed not to have made a dent in the understanding of the Board.

The most impassioned orators of the evening were students from Cañada and Skyline Colleges who spoke out in opposition to budget cuts in general, and in defense of Student Services in particular. Katy Rose, who has been recruiting fellow students and encouraging activism at Cañada, spoke not to the Board, but to the rest of the assembled, urging that they not be complicit in allowing cuts. We need to stop accepting the idea, she said, “that we take whatever we can get.” Instead, “we will get all that we can take.”

The rest of the students had come from Skyline to plead for the colleges. David Walters suggested that there is enough money in state and local coffers, but it is being misspent. Noemi Perdomo worried that immigrant students, currently able to take classes as a result of Assembly Bill 540, will suffer under cuts to EOPS (Extended Opportunity Programs & Services—a state-funded program assisting underrepresented, non-traditional, low-income and educationally disadvantaged students to gain access to, and successfully complete, a higher education). They will not be able to work or go to school without such programs, she said. I would further like to point out that workers pay taxes which then fund local programs and services—highly-skilled workers with college degrees pay even more. Those who do not work often require the use of social services, which are then less well-funded. It is therefore in the region’s interest to continue to pay for these programs at the college—the return on investment is significant.

Several students advocated for DSPS (Disabled Students Programs & Services), which continues to face draconian cuts of up to 70%. Fernando Gomez claimed the DSPS program helped him conquer the setbacks his learning disability had created and allowed him to move from earning Ds and Fs to As and Bs. “This is not money that is being flushed down the toilet. We are working hard every day, every night.” Michelle Araica spoke through freely-flowing tears, “I know everyone keeps saying that these cuts aren’t personal…I am a DSPS student. And it’s starting to feel personal.” Tom Wong likened it to “taking away a guy’s wheelchair and building more wheelchair ramps.” This put me in mind of the construction projects on all three campuses, seen by many as completely incongruous, given our financial situation—construction during the recession has been a real PR battle for the District. In a sense, Mr. Wong is correct--by unfunding our DSPS programs, we may lose our wheelchair-bound students as we add more ramps.

But the statements of these three students hit the mark in other ways they could not have anticipated.

It is generally agreed that the Board members do not respond to open comments. However, Trustee Richard Holober asked the Board’s indulgence to make a statement. The normal process in these meetings, he said, is for students and faculty to come to the meeting, tell the Board what is on their minds, and then, often, they leave. “And we get down to the nitty-gritty of dealing with these budget cuts. And I think that creates a disconnect.” He asked the students to go out into their communities and apply the same passion in support of the fund-raising initiatives the District plans to push in the near future (a maintenance assessment district, general obligation bond, and parcel tax were all floated as possibilities, later in the meeting). While I agree that we need to move beyond our neighborhoods and even beyond our county borders, I also think we need to turn our attention inward. After sitting through the rest of this meeting, I feel we need to examine under a microscope every step being taken by the Board.

Sure enough, Mr. Holober’s prediction came to pass. By 8 p.m., none of the student or faculty speakers were still in the room. And the Board did indeed “get down to the nitty-gritty,” sans opposition.

The vote to approve the Core Values document happened quickly and without further opposition. Once adopted, The Core Values document became the defining element for the rest of the evening’s discussions. Note the following language:
“Student support services and staff are also important and help ensure the success of our students in their pursuit of a postsecondary education; however, the Board believes that, in order to preserve the greatest number of classes and programs to meet student demand, the College district may need to reduce, consolidate and/or automate student support services.”
In keeping with this document, Trustee Holober stated that the college needed to serve as many students as possible and he further intimated that students who require significant financial input were a burden on the system. He offered the following example: If closing the child care center at Skyline inconveniences 40 students who will no longer be able to come to school, and the costs of keeping that center open means cutting classes that impact 350 students, he would rather remove the child care center.

On its face this seems logical. But is this the same rationale being used for cutting the colleges’ Disabled Students Programs and Services or its EOPS programs? In other words, because it costs more to assist a student with a disability—from dyslexia to an autistic spectrum disorder to, as Tom Wong pointed out, a physical challenge requiring a wheelchair—we are no longer going to fund these programs? Because a recent immigrant or an at-risk student requires additional financial input, we are no longer going to serve these students? I personally find that rationale unconscionable. It flies in the face of the actual mission statements of all three colleges. And it is wholly un-American.

“We have an obligation to try to do something proactive to try to relieve the situation we’re in in the District,” said President Miljanich. If the colleges are not organized enough to make decisions on their own about where cuts should be made, Vice President Dave Mandelkern suggested, the Board will do it for them. “Face it, the budget train’s leaving the station. And people need to be on board.” VP Mandelkern requested an organizational chart of all of the programs being cut and all of the programs being kept, while Trustee Karen Schwarz further asked that the rationale behind these decisions be included in the chart. However, it was pointed out that in order to make equitable, reasonable cuts, the Board would need a lot of knowledge and expertise—and this is the job for which they’ve hired their college Vice Presidents. VP Mandelkern replied, “If you’re going to need us to be experts, we’re good students…we’ll get there.” Pres. Miljanich replied, “We’re never going to be the experts that we’ve hired others to be…but we are going to be proactive and we are going to be involved.”

So some members of the Board are willing to become experts with enough depth to choose between courses and programs at the college? Are they ignoring the fact that faculty have primacy over instruction? Are they not also able to see that there are accreditation standards that need to be met in order to keep our colleges operational?

Given the magnitude of the cuts to DSPS, EOPS, and similar programs across all three colleges, VP Mandelkern asked whether there are even viable programs left and whether we should in fact consider consolidation of these programs at one of the campuses. The Board’s continued insistence on consolidation of student services, especially services for the physically disabled, would create transportation and logistical issues. It might even inconvenience our students to the point that we end up in violation of state and federal laws.

Another reason why I find this document so grave is the institution of substantive changes to the District Mission Statement, the Preamble of which provides a useful summary:
“The District is committed to leadership by providing quality education and promoting life-long learning in partnership with its community and its surrounding educational institutions. It actively participates in the economic, social, and cultural development of San Mateo County. In a richly diverse environment and with increasing awareness of its role in the global community, the District is dedicated to maintaining a climate of academic freedom in which a wide variety of viewpoints is cultivated and shared. The District actively participates in the continuing development of the California Community Colleges as an integral and effective component of the structure of public higher education in the State.”
Note the words “…promoting life-long learning in partnership with its community…” in the very first sentence. Yet, in the very first paragraph of the body of the new Core Values document is this statement:
“While lifelong learning classes have long been an important part of the community college mission, in the current situation, these courses cannot assume the same importance as transfer and workforce development courses.”
The second paragraph goes on to state:
“…the most important consideration as budget reductions are proposed is whether or not the proposed action will unnecessarily reduce our core mission courses in transfer and workforce development.”
The Board has now identified a “core mission” that no longer includes community education. I wonder how their constituents within the county feel about that change? (Note that these are the same citizens the District wishes to tax to pay for its upkeep and programs, and who they hope will purchase memberships at its new fitness center.) Are they intending to change the mission statements for the three colleges, too? Is this the kind of policy they intend to set? (And by the way…if this is the “core mission”, what do we call the rest of the Mission Statement? The “secondary mission”?)

This was all the more amusing in light of that evening's presentation showcasing art commissioned for the buildings recently completed at Skyline. The slides included renderings of several mosaics which tastefully incorporated words from the District's Mission Statement. Ironically, included in these mosaics were the words “lifelong learning”, which the Board of Trustees had just voted to de-emphasize!

I would argue that the San Mateo Community College Board of Trustees is not taking a “proactive” stance. It is taking a dictatorial one. In light of the current crisis, members appear to be taking the opportunity to make changes that will have wide-ranging, long-lasting implications.

If you're able to attend a Board meeting, I suggest you bring coffee and pay attention, right up to the end. I can promise you an enlightening experience, watching the sands of educational policy shift beneath our feet.

Watch your step, my friend.