Santa Rosa Junior College faces big challenges in the year ahead, including declining enrollment at the school of 36,000 students and a daunting $3.4 million budget deficit.

But there are reasons to be hopeful, President Frank Chong said Thursday in an annual state-of-the-college address to an auditorium filled with community leaders.

The student population is becoming more ethnically diverse, better reflecting the region’s racial makeup. And officials are about to break ground on a series of campus upgrades made possible by the 2014 passage of a $410 million bond measure.

Added to that are a slate of new course offerings, including brewery production, cyber security and drone pilot programs to answer industry needs and attract new students, Chong said.

“I see it as one of my jobs to keep Santa Rosa Junior College current so we can stay on the leading edge instead of the bleeding edge,” Chong said in his sixth such speech since arriving in 2012.

As in years past, Chong has talked about achievement and change on the campus, which has the state’s highest acceptance rate to University of California system schools.

But a new issue emerged in 2017 that was not cause for celebration.

Declining enrollment in Sonoma County public schools, prompted in part by the recession, has reduced junior college numbers by 27 percent over the past decade, Chong said. And that decline, in turn, has cut campus revenue, requiring a 2.7 percent reduction in overall spending to get back on track, Chong said.

“It’s something we have to address because, as you know, we get funded by butts in the seats,” the president said.

On the flip side, he said the campus is drawing more Latino students, who now make up 33 percent of enrollment.

By next year white students, who comprise about 50 percent of the campus population — down from 56 percent in 2012 — will no longer be in the majority.

A $2.6 million federal grant funds diversity programs and initiatives.

“You can see the sea change that is happening in our workplace and our student body,” Chong said. “I think that is a good thing.”

Campus renovation is another bright spot. The first project using Measure H money will be upgrades to the 78-year-old Burbank Auditorium.

The red-bricked campus landmark will undergo extensive internal modernization and receive a generous extension of its outdoor terrace. It’s expected to be complete in November 2018.

Other projects will focus on theater seating, a new studio lab and athletic field upgrades.

“I think we’re going to move forward to have a wonderful bond plan,” Chong said.

Chong also honored Suzy and Mike Marzalek, parents of an SRJC alumna, this year’s recipients of the annually bestowed President’s Medallion for volunteer service to the college.

He closed the ticketed event, which highlighted the school’s 100th anniversary, by urging continued community support “as we work to get back on a solid financial footing.”

“We can make the climb together,” Chong said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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