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As More Cuts Loom at SBCC, Serban Speaks Out About Brown’s Budget Plans

Another round of state cuts to community colleges forces local officials to confront grim scenarios of fee hikes, class reductions

SBCC President Andreea Serban has faced plenty of budget challenges since she took office in 2008, but the cuts recently proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown could be the biggest SBCC has confronted in its history.

Earlier this month, Brown announced that $400 million would be stripped from California’s community college budgets, which would have serious implications for students. On Friday, Noozhawk checked in with Serban to see how the cuts might fall locally.

Three scenarios loom for the school. The first, and least worrisome, would occur if Brown’s proposed tax extensions are passed. SBCC would only need to cut $3.7 million, but those reductions would be ongoing, as with all the scenarios, Serban said.

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To help solve California’s budget woes, Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing a series of moves that may result in higher course fees at SBCC. Historically, each fee increase at the school has been followed by declines in enrollment. (Lara Cooper / Noozhawk file photo)

The second scenario would rely on the renewal of Proposition 98, a voter-approved ballot measure that requires a percentage of the state’s budget to be spent on education. This scenario would translate to a $6.6 million cut, she said, but suspension of Prop. 98 has occurred in the past.

Serban, however, is planning for the worst, which would occur if the proposed tax extension is not passed in tandem with the nonrenewal of Prop. 98. That situation would require SBCC’s leaders to slash $10.2 million, or 14 percent of its general fund.

The Legislature must decide by March whether to put the tax extensions on the ballot for the June 8 special election. If they are included, voters will decide whether to renew them.

SBCC’s leadership is planning for each scenario, and Serban expects the conversation to be extremely difficult. The college will have budget talks during its Feb. 7 fiscal committee meeting, and again at its trustees study session on Feb. 10.  Serban said that no matter what option goes forward, a tentative 2011-2012 budget must be agreed on in June.

Brown also proposed to increase course fees to $36 from $26, a $10 difference that may sound trivial but isn’t. In the same breath, Brown said that half of the community college students will receive some kind of scholarship assistance because the tuition fee is waived for low-income students.

“The argument he’s making is that this increase won’t affect the neediest students,” Serban said. “However, you have to be extremely low income to qualify.”

As a result, many middle-class students may be left out, which could result in fewer students, she said. Historically, each time SBCC has increased fees, enrollment has declined.

Brown also said that his reductions would protect K-12 education, a path selected because the K-12 system had already borne the brunt of the state’s budget cuts.

“As someone who has worked in education my entire life, I appreciate that,” said Serban, a board member of Santa Barbara Partners in Education, who added that any cuts to education are a loss.

“What we also know for a fact is that, in this economy, individuals who don’t have higher education, their employment opportunities are zero,” she said. “The real concern for us is that further cuts will contribute to further unemployment.”

Short term is the budget issue, but long-term cuts to education present a real policy question, according to Serban. SBCC has already dropped electives on the credit side, so finding more to get rid of will undoubtedly be painful.

“The low-hanging fruit has been long gone,” she said.

Further cuts will affect SBCC’s core offerings, including the adult education program.

“Everything will need to be on the table, and we as an institution will have to make some difficult choices,” she said.

When asked what students can expect if the cuts go through, Serban said it is unavoidable that courses and student services will decrease.

Although fewer courses were offered last year, enrollment remained the same, at about 20,500 students, and Serban said the faculty has been extremely collaborative, admitting more students to their courses than normal. She said the classes are jam-packed, and students don’t “shop around” like they used to, adding a course and deciding to drop it later.

“They know their spot will be immediately taken,” she said. “There’s an awareness of the value of the classes.”

Asked what she would tell students heading into more lean times, Serban said that what SBCC continues to offer will be of the highest quality.

“Students come first, and that’s why we exist,” she said, adding that every budget decision would be made very carefully. “It’s painful to keep shrinking what we offer when we know that the demand is huge.

“The other reality is that saying ‘don’t cut us, cut somebody else’ wont work ... The budget problem is too big.”

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk or @NoozhawkNews. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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