Wednesday, November 7, 2012

College-Wide Forum at Saddleback College (featuring the Chancellor and three trustees): any questions?

     I went to the Saddleback forum today, scheduled for 3:00. Got held up a bit, so I showed up two or three minutes late, and the event had already begun.
     The auditorium was mostly full, especially in back, and so I walked down the right side toward the front of the room, where a row remained empty. Chancellor Gary Poertner was holding forth, but he stopped what he was doing to stare at me, pause, and then ask, in a friendly way, what the hell I was doing there. (We’re practically pals.) Why didn’t I attend the forum earlier today at IVC? he asked.
     I tried to answer—that Glenn had scheduled the IVC forum at teaching prime time (12:30), when I teach—but the opportunity quickly evaporated and Poertner continued forumizing.
     We were in the grand “Ronald Reagan board of trustees meeting room”—yes, that’s what it’s called—a bulbous appendage of the tallish building that houses nursing (those people think they’re mighty special) and the district offices (up on the "third floor"). Sitting before the audience were three trustees—Board President Nancy Padberg, Dave Lang, and Jim Wright. They all looked as pleased as punch—well, maybe not Nancy, but she was as pleased as, say, Iced Tea.
     Gary was saying that, when he arrived at the district in 1999 (part of the Cedric Sampson neo-totalitarian package), we had accreditation trouble and we’ve been having accreditation trouble ever since. Then, about 18 months ago, the Accreds gave us a serious warning, which didn't go down well at the time. But, says Gary, it was “the best thing that ever happened to us.” It forced us to work together as a district, and that’s been great.
     The Accreds, reminded Gary, shall descend upon us on Friday.
     BUDGET ISSUES. Gary then shifted to “budget issues.” Last Friday, he said, he sent out an email to the district community about our new budget reality—namely, that revenue has remained flat but inflation has steadily raised expenses, and so now we’re headed for a kind of Malthusian crossing of the lines. It was not his intention, he said, to be “alarmist.” Nope. He had in mind raising awareness of this issue, long before a crises occurs, so that we can slowly and deliberately plan crisis-prevention.
     Gary noted that our district, unlike the vast majority of CA districts, is on “basic aid”—funding via local property taxes—which, in our case, means that we’ve managed to duck the big 17% cut that was experienced by most other districts/colleges. In fact, owing to our special circumstances (high property values, etc.), we’ve had more than the usual allotment of moola. Gravy.

     WHY NOT USE BASIC AID GRAVY? So why not fill the anticipated shortfall with our basic aid gravy? Well, said Gary, we haven’t done that sort of thing since the 90s. The board has long enforced the policy that the colleges are to be funded according to the usual Sacramento levels and that basic aid money (i.e., the remainder) is never to be spent on ongoing expenses. Nope, that gravy is slathered on new construction and the like. You can’t fully depend on basic aid to provide adequate funds because of potential unexpected property devaluations, etc. And so it’s unwise to rely on it for ongoing expenses, as some districts have done.
     Gary (and, later, Lang and Padberg) referred to the bad old days—back in the late 90s—when the board took that unwise path and found itself suddenly behind the eight ball. Back then, the board (namely, that asshole John Williams and his benighted "fiscally conservative" pals) were forced to spend district reserves, and that got the district in dutch with the state chancellor’s office, the accreds, etc.

     STUDENT SUCCESS. Gary turned next to the “completion agenda”—as it is referred to across the country—which we in Cal insist on calling the “student success act,” cuz we’re special, I guess. This year, at each board meeting, one of the “student success” recommendations is discussed. It's on ongoing thing.
     The Accreds tagged us for having no “district plan,” which, as it turns out, is an over-arching plan that includes both colleges, not just the district as a super-entity. So we’ve worked on that; each college has plans that fit into the district plan, etc.
   
     MUTUAL RESPECT. Our #1 goal is creating and maintaining an atmosphere of “mutual respect,” etc. It became clear, not long ago, that “our relationships are terrible”; there were animosities, jealousies, and so on, throughout the district and its two colleges. That needed to be fixed. That wouldn’t be easy, because there are some “raw emotions,” said Gary.
     Over the summer, five “barriers” (to mutual respect and good relationships) were identified (we've discussed these previously). Soon, the two presidents will be sending up their colleges’ strategies in this regard, i.e., barrier-wise.

     NANCY. Next up (at 3:18) was Board President Nancy Padberg, who started by asking all those folks lining the back wall to move up to the front. They complied, sort of.
     “These board forums are wonderful,” said Nancy. She explained the need for trustees to be careful; after all, they don’t want to be accused of “micromanaging.” She noted an ant on the floor. Furtively, she gave Burnett the stink eye.
     Nancy referred to the board’s goals. They’ve held “retreats,” where trustees discussed the “district culture,” which needs to be warm and fuzzy and befogged with mutual respect. The Chancellor is supposed to pursue all that and to hold the college presidents responsible for pursuing all this warm and fuzziness at their colleges.
     Whew.
     “There’s been progress,” said Gary. I think he meant it. (I wonder if he realizes that IVC is pretty freaked up?)
     The board, said Nancy, is committed to monitoring student success. Nancy briefly described current efforts to increase communication and collaboration between K-12 and the community colleges. The goal is to create a new and improved “environment,” collaboration-wise, said the Nance.
     Nancy declared her enthusiasm about the ongoing presentations re all this collaborating and planning and whatnot. I've never detected this alleged enthusiasm, but if she says so, I believe it.

     SAY SOMETHING NICE. Golly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Nancy so loose, so informal. She wasn’t setting any records in that regard, but she was awfully chirpy and friendly for her. Really!
     In fact, everything about this meeting seemed to express openness and informality and Kumbayaitude. I don’t think I’ve ever felt quite so removed from those awful Mathur years and all that went with ‘em.

     ANY QUESTIONS/COMMENTS? Nancy now opened up the meeting to questions and comments. She seemed to have in mind directing questions at the trustees—and, I suppose, at Gary.

     Lee Haggerty (a SC poli sci instructor and long-time union leader) asked Gary to explain how the passage of Prop 30 will affect funding at our colleges. (Didn't he already explain that?)
     Gary, who confessed that he was surprised by 30’s passage, asserted that, had 30 not passed, districts receiving funding from Sacramento would have experienced another 7.5% cut in funding. Naturally, since we’re on basic aid (and property values remain sufficiently high), none of this directly affects us. Our problem is that our revenue remains flat but inflation has increased expenses. The “cost of living,” said Gary, “catches up with you” eventually.

     Vice Chancellor Deb "the Debster" Fitzsimmons chimed in to say that Prop 30 brings a temporary tax. I think she said that the money cannot be spent on administration.

     Speaking of raw emotions, Ken W (SC economics instructor and former Old Guardster) referred to “return on investment” studies. I think he advocated “separating out” ATEP in these studies. I don’t recall what Gary said in response.

What about Bob?
     Ken then offered a "friendly suggestion" about something else: the district offices. One doesn’t experience many “warm and fuzzies,” said Ken, upon being “buzzed in” to enter the district offices. Such extreme security measures encourage the thought, “Just what goes on in there?”
     Naturally, this typically Woodwardian remark was received by all with a dollop of mirth. Poertner protested that he wasn’t involved in the decision to create Fort Knox on the Third Floor. He said that, as he understood it, somebody saw this sort of thing at a concentration camp over at Rancho or someplace. “Why don’t we do that?” they said. Also, HR traffic includes some routine heavy squawkers, and it’s best to slow down and formalize the comings and goings of that noisy crowd.
     Ken seemed especially concerned about what “Bramucci” was doing “back there,” beyond the machine gun nests. Laughter.

     Anna Maria C asked a question, I think, about all those early retirements and whether they would all be replaced. (Hope I got that right.) Gary said some vaguely reassuring things, I guess. But he noted that these decisions (about who is hired) are made at the college level, and it’s basically none of his business. “It’s up to the colleges.”
     Somebody said something about the 50% law (which requires that at least half of expenditures be on “instruction”—i.e., faculty salaries and benefits), and Trustee Dave Lang noted that the board carefully monitors how the district is doing on that score.

     SC Prez Tod "the Todster" Burnett got up to yammer about those early retirements. “Blah, blah, blah,” he said. At least that’s what I got out of it.
     Trustee Jim Wright noted that, at the last board meeting, the board approved SC’s list of new hires, but it's up to the colleges to prioritize the list.

     BULLET-PROOF GLASS. Claire C-S chimed in re Woody’s Fort Knoxian concerns. In her estimation, the situation would be much improved if they just got rid of the “bullet-proof glass.” That’s what’s gotta go, she said.
     There was much laughter, of course.
     She (or somebody) addressed Gary: you didn’t mean to be alarmist, she said, but talk of a 5% cut is scary. Gary noted that 5% really isn’t much. It’s just that inflation caught up with us, and so we’ve decided to anticipate the problem and encourage a collaborative discussion long before any crisis appears. It’s up to the colleges to decide what they’re going to do to reduce expenses. They’ve got to balance their budgets, etc. (At this point, I thought I sensed minor peevitude on Gary’s part.) He said that his Friday communication only included the obvious suggestions, not directives. How the college budgets are balanced is up to the colleges. So is fidelity to shared governance in the process.
     Gary noted that he purposely sent his email before the election. He didn’t want to seem to be responding to the failure of Prop 30 (which he expected).
     Again exhibiting some degree of peevitude (I think), Gary said that we can just wait and do nothing until a crises unfolds—or we can carefully discuss the problem with the time that we have.
     Golly. Gary never seems to really get angry. His peevishness, if it exists at all, is as subtle as a breeze.
     Nancy reminded everybody how bad things were when she arrived at the district (in late 1998). We went off (or were taken off) basic aid and we were suddenly in big trouble. (This was a de facto slam of Williams and Co.)
     She noted that, surprisingly, yesterday, many higher ed bond issues passed. Two passed in OC; seven across the state. Only one failed.
     WILL THEY TAKE AWAY OUR GRAVY TRAIN? Someone asked how vulnerable our “basic aid” gravy train is. Gary explained that, about two years ago, we started experiencing anti-basic aid heat. That was coming from the other OC districts. Why? Because they were “envious” of us. (Gary wasn’t mincing words.) Now, in fact, derailing basic aid wouldn’t help those districts at all. In truth, were we to go off basic aid and then line up with all those other districts for Sacramento money, that would be another mouth to feed for Mother California, and so, in the end, these peevish other OC districts would get less money, not more.
     Challenges to basic aid have “always been there,” said Gary. At this point, if our basic aid is challenged, it likely won’t be by local districts but by the economy.
     Gary explained that Mira Costa went on basic aid but then experienced unexpected plummeting revenue. Now they’re saying, “we wish we did what you’re doing” (i.e., I suppose, not using basic aid gravy for ongoing expenses.)
     As it turns out, injected VC (Fiscal Services) Deb Fitzsimmons, more and more districts are turning to basic aid, so it’s not as if this form of funding is facing extinction. And each district that goes on basic aid means one less district depending on state money—so there’s “one less mouth to feed.”
     SC Academic Senate chief Bob C noted that, if you think that the district offices' No Man's Land is bad, you shoulda got a load of the spy cameras that used to festoon the elevators! (“I always thought that was the colleges spying on us,” quipped Gary.)
     Eventually, the irrepressible Ken W asked another question: a couple of years ago, Capo Unified switched over to “area” elections. That is, each trustee is elected only by citizens of their area, not by citizens of all the district's areas. Has the board discussed the possibility of that kind of change?
The Accreds arrive on Friday
     Nancy acknowledged that the subject has come up. Gary piped up to remind us that, not long ago, CSUF did a study of local districts with regard to optimal trustee representation. Evidently, the chief worry was that, in areas sporting significant ethnic diversity, without “area” trustees and elections, minority groups are not well-represented. These recent studies yielded the recommendation that two north county districts switch to area elections. But our district, owing to its lack of diversity (wall-to-wall white Republicans), did not receive the same recommendation. And so no change was made.
     Nancy explained her own view, that we should retain the current representation. The truth is, said Nancy, that the trustees need to make decisions for colleges serving the entire district area, not just one sub-area within the district. And so having trustees elected by the entire citizenry is right and good.
     Lang chimed in to suggest that the demographic homogeneity of our district is a compelling argument to leave things alone.
     Ken, evidently unable to control himself, chimed in to suggest that our district is increasingly diverse. (Yeah, I think I spotted an African-American in the audience.)
     Tere F advised the Woodster how he can locate the relevant demographic data.
     At that point, Nancy solicited further questions, but there were none. (I thought about asking one, but, hey, it's not my college.) And so, at 4:02, the meeting was declared over and out. There was a fair amount of applause. And that was about it.

13 comments:

  1. Woodward was one of the Williams supporters, wasn't he? Jeesh. that was a great investment.

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  2. I couldn't go to the IVC one either. I think everyone who lives in the OC and wear the GOP issued bag over their heads was surprised by the passage of Prop 30 AND Obama's win.

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  3. This post makes it sounds as though it's believed that a district goes on and off Basic Aid by choice. I believe this is not correct. See: http://iusd.org/budget_watch/IUSDBudgetWatch-FAQ.html

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  4. 9:48, I believe that my account is accurate, but I'm not sure. Anybody know if our district has a choice regarding going on or off basic aid?

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  5. The district does not have a choice - but they just act like that.

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  6. I had always heard the powers at SOCCCD talk like they had a choice in the Basic Aid thing -- as 6:22 indicates. But after reading that thing on the IUSD web site I came to a different conclusion. IUSD has apparently been put on and taken off BA over the years, regardless of whether they wanted it to happen. And I can think of no reason why they would lie about it on a District web site.

    However, I can definitely think of reasons why SOCCCD folks would dissemble on this matter. For one thing, acting like it's a choice makes them seem smarter for having made the choice. And being on BA seems more Responsible and Republican.

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  7. Choice or no--we're on basic aid, and insofar as we are on it, the board must decide whether to use the "remainder" money (beyond the amount the state would provide) on "ongoing expenses." The board, for the last dozen or so years, has held to its unwillingness to use the money that way. I think that Gary makes a good case for the Board's philosophy. It strikes me as prudent. You can fault the board on lots of things, but I think they've done a pretty good job fiscally in the last decade or so (leaving aside the decision to keep Ishtar--er, ATEP--alive).

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  8. Basic aid is having more property taxes than what the state formula would give you. This can go up and down. I didn't really understand this until recently. Fitzsimons did a presentation. You should ask her to send it to you. I am glad this board and district are conservative. We have been spared what everyone else has been going through. My wife works at a neighbor college. It's a mess.

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  9. I didn't attend the IVC session because once again it is crowded into the admin offices where the VPI can monitor for resistance.

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  10. Hillary really did have that baby. She named it Barak!

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  11. I get it, 11:58: Obama is an alien. So you're a birther, are you? That would make you a Stupid Person par excellence. Flat Earther, too? Thanks for playing. Now go away.

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  12. Have you noticed that right wingers are not funny? Scary, yes, and dumb beyond belief, but any attempts at humor they make are grossly ineffective. Why is that?

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  13. I have noticed the same thing. Not good musicians either.

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