Financial Issues Divide College Board Candidates
By Susan Reines
October 4 -- If the first forum in the race for three seats on the College Board of Trustees is any indication, budget management will be the campaign's hot button issue.
Last week, in their first face-to-face encounter, the six challengers criticized the board's decision to cut vocational programs in the midst of a budget shortfall, while the sole incumbent said the board was forced to make difficult choices in leading the college through the fiscal storm.
Throughout the course of Wednesday's forum, sponsored by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, challengers painted a picture of mismanagement and strained relations that led to a faculty vote of no confidence in the college's administration and board..
"The district is in serious trouble right now," said Dr. Susanne Trimbath, and economist who serves as technical advisor to the California Economic Strategy Panel.
Trimbath added that the board, even when the college was in serious financial trouble, had failed to reach out to surrounding cities or forge partnerships with the business community, both of which, she said, are potential sources of funding.
Doug Willis, an economist and member of the City's Rent Control Board, said he believed the college board had relied on incorrect budget figures when it made the decision last year to cut the automotive, architecture and other vocational programs. The decision, Willis said, resulted in budget surpluses at the end of this fiscal year.
"The administration needed to react" to state budget cuts, he said. "They needed transparency, they needed a financial system they could depend on so they'd have had the correct figures."
Willis has said he could use his economic expertise to improve financial management at SMC.
Margaret Quinones, the current chair of the board and the only incumbent in the race, described the situation differently.
"Our budget had to be cut twenty-five percent and we had to make some hard decisions," said Quinones, who is a member of the powerful California Community Colleges Board of Governors.
Quinones said that the college has since been taken off the "watch list" of schools in financial trouble and has continued to hold the best transfer rate to four year colleges of any California community college.
The board, she said, has begun to take steps toward restoring the automotive program, whose elimination seems to have drawn the most protest.
Quinones said she did not support the college faculty's "vote of no confidence" in its leadership, which was held after the board decided to cut eight vocational programs, because the fiscal situation had been so strained at the time of the decision.
But many of the challengers suggested that the program cuts had, in fact, damaged relations between SMC's administration, faculty, students and board.
"We need to restore civility at the college," said challenger Rob Rader, who is a member of the Bayside District Board that oversees the Downtown.
SMC needs "independent trustees that are perceived as being fair and beholden to no one" and greater transparency in its budget process, Rader said. "It's not clear to me how and why decisions are made to cut particular programs," he said.
Dr. Susan Aminoff, a benefits negotiator for LA Community Colleges, said the college leadership needed to rebuild relations with its faculty, administration and students.
"The issue really is one of collegiality," Aminoff said.
Her background as a negotiator for health benefits would prepare her for strengthening relationships at the college, Aminoff said. "This is what I do for a living. This is not a philosophy. Consensus is not something that I sort of believe in, it's what I do."
Charles Donaldson, a longtime SMC professor, said the college would need to begin spending its budget more "prudently" in order to restore the community's confidence.
"It should get a dollar's worth for every dollar spent," he
said, citing as an example of budget mismanagement the board's proposal
to spend $25 million on a new performing arts
In addition to suggesting better budget management, challengers recommended ways to bring more money to support the college's programs, even as the government's budget continues to be strained.
Tonja McCoy, who would be the first board member from Malibu in over a decade, said the board must "be creative, because they're only relying on the government and state for money."
McCoy suggested setting up a committee to work with the Santa Monica College Foundation, which does fundraising.
Tied up in the problem of the tight budget is the issue of college growth. Neighbors of the college, who have experienced increases in traffic and noise as the college has expanded, have been urging the board to limit enrollment or at least provide a vision of the college's future.
But board members have reminded the neighbors that limiting growth would be difficult because the college's growth determines how much state funding it receives.
The candidates split over whether they would consider implementing an enrollment cap. Trimbath, Aminoff and Willis did not reject the idea, while the other candidates said they favored alternative measures, such as spreading more students to satellite campuses around the city.
Trimbath has distinguished herself from the group as the only candidate opposing the $135 bond measure on the November ballot that would provide funds to buy land for playing fields and renovate college facilities.
"The district's bond proposal does nothing to address the serious financial crisis it faces," she said.
Trimbath added that the board had failed to clearly define how the money would be spent or how a bond to acquire land and restore facilities would improve the college's educational programs.
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