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Santa Rosa Junior College is embarking on a hiring spree even as the state is looking to whack funding for higher education.

The school plans to fill 21 full-time faculty positions, the most in nearly a decade. Last year, SRJC added just one person — a nursing instructor — to its full-time faculty.

The "Help Wanted" signs may seem at odds with the gloomy news for higher education. On Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown unveiled a budget proposal that would cut $400 million from the state's community colleges while raising fees 38.5 percent.

But SRJC officials say they are reacting to a spurt in departures that exceeds the number of new hires they plan to take on, continuing a recent trend of replacing fewer fulltime instructors than leave.

This year, 24 full-time faculty members will retire, the highest in at least eight years. Once the 21 new hires are in place, the school will have hired 66 new full-time faculty positions over the past five years and seen 74 positions vacated.

Without replacements, the most recent departures would threaten the future of certain programs, including the counseling department, which is on the cusp of losing more than a quarter of its members, SRJC President Robert Agrella said.

Additionally the school is concerned with regulations requiring that full-time faculty comprise a certain portion of the college's instructional staff, which may then be rounded out with part-time teachers.

That minimum level was temporarily suspended this year due to the economic crisis, but the school can't afford to fall far below it without risking heavy fines when the minimum level requirement is reinstated, Agrella said.

The school would need to hire around 36 faculty to meet the requirement. By hiring 21, it will stay within striking distance, he said.

All of the hiring searches come with the condition that the open jobs are subject to future funding realities, Agrella said.

"If the funding of the college becomes so severely impacted then we will have have the opportunity to again decide, which of the positions might not be filled," Agrella said in an email.

Exactly how the coming budget will affect SRJC remains to be seen. Officials are trying to interpret the governor's proposal, with the details to be addressed by legislators and the governor.

A $400 million cut across the system could slash $6.7 million to $8 million from SRJC's funds, school officials said.

"Even though cuts are coming up, we don't know how they are coming," said Doug Roberts, SRJC's vice president of business services.

Whatever happens in Sacramento, the upward trend in retirements at SRJC seems to be a certainty in the coming years. As of fall 2009, more than 52 percent of SRJC's tenured-track faculty were 55 or older according to the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office.

That's a significantly higher portion than the community college system as a whole where less than 43 percent of full-time faculty are age 55 or above.

English department chairman Craig Foster, for example, said his department has 25 full-time faculty, a quarter of them verging on retirement, himself included.

"Three years from now we will probably lose six people," said Foster, 61.

While the roots of the retirements are demographic, Foster said economic factors are also at play in the timing of retirements, including recent reductions in faculty salaries, which mean older employees don't have the incentives of adding to their pensions, which are calculated from the year of highest salary.