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Santa Rosa Junior College budget crisis

Operating budget: $161 million

Budget shortfall: At least $6.5 million

Projected savings in cuts to summer classes: $2 million

Students enrolled last summer in online and on-campus classes: 13,234

Total employees: 3,000

Santa Rosa Junior College President Frank Chong backpedaled Friday from a controversial move by his administration to slash summer classes this year, a budget decision that stunned the campus community overnight and fueled a backlash from students as well as faculty, who are locked in a contract dispute with college leaders.

Chong sounded two public apologies Friday, the first in a campuswide email at 8:35 a.m., when he sought to dampen furor over a plan announced Thursday evening to cut half of all summer classes to help close a budget shortfall of at least $6.5 million.

“I am not afraid to admit I made a mistake,” he wrote in the email, where he said he would postpone summer registration for at least a week to allow him to consult with the campus community over cuts. “I own it and will try to learn from it and not make that mistake again.”

Less than nine hours later, school officials told students by email that registration for summer courses would go ahead, as originally planned on Monday, before a final decision on what classes, if any, are eliminated.

The second reversal marked the end of an exceptionally turbulent day for the 100-year-old college and Chong, who called the immediate crisis the most acute of his six-year tenure at the school’s helm.

“I didn’t just screw up a little, I screwed up royally,” Chong said in an interview Friday evening.

The decision to cancel hundreds of summer classes was not floated among faculty leaders or student representatives, Chong acknowledged. One member of the elected Board of Trustees, which oversees the college and hired Chong, said the move was a surprise.

Chong said the decision “was not done correctly” and that he had asked faculty for help rectifying it.

“I did my mea culpa,” Chong said in the interview. “I admitted a mistake, and I hope the faculty and the rest of the college find that some of the things that I’ve done have been positive. Let’s see how forgiving they are.”

The college community was embroiled in chaos starting Thursday evening, when Mary Kay Rudolph, senior vice president of student affairs, sent out the email announcing the summer class cuts and referring to an earlier, March 27 email from Chong about the school’s budget crisis, which has been looming since last summer. It stems from a combination of declining enrollment linked to a strong economy and departures of more than 200 students since October’s disastrous wildfires.

Rudolph said in the email that the class cuts would affect all non-online courses except those offered in public safety fields, health sciences, athletics and high school equivalency programs, as well as one mathematics course. Savings from the move were projected at $2 million.

“As President Chong indicated, we unfortunately cannot continue to maintain a ‘large college level’ of course offerings at a time when there are simply not enough students signing up for classes; the prudent approach needed is to ‘right size’ the college,” Rudolph wrote. “The immediate need is to reduce the number and type of classes offered during summer 2018, and to do so before students begin enrolling on April 2nd and wind up being displaced due to class cancellations.”

The email to college employees came in the midst of tense contract negotiations with faculty members, many of whom have voiced dismay over leadership of the college and Chong’s management. In 2017, he made $307,470 and earned $24,230 in health benefits, making him among the highest paid public officials in Sonoma County.

Students and faculty members flooded Chong with emails late Thursday and Friday expressing their anger and confusion, the college president said. Some faculty complained that they had not been consulted about the plans to eliminate summer classes and raised the possibility of a no-confidence vote over Chong’s leadership. A faculty protest is set for Monday morning outside Chong’s office in Bailey Hall.

Eric Thompson, president of the Academic Senate, said he spent Friday meeting with instructors from various departments.

“Until this morning, people were in a state of horror and shock,” he said. “People still are on edge even though he (Chong) issued the apology. We’re not sure what’s coming next.”

Thompson said the proposed cuts would have impacted thousands of students. More than 13,000 students took on-campus and online classes last summer.

SRJC Trustee Jordan Burns said the plan to eliminate summer courses wasn’t shared with the board as far as he knew.

“I didn’t know about it until the email went out,” said Burns, who heard from several students concerned about their coursework being upended. “They had already planned on taking summer classes. They had already picked their classes.”

Ursula von Ritter, an SRJC student and single mother, complained in an email to Chong that canceling summer classes would put her academic plans in jeopardy and impact her financial security. She said she’d have to postpone her plans to complete required courses, risking her eligibility for nondeferrable scholarships at the University of Michigan, where she’s set to attend later this fall.

“Without these scholarships, I will be unable to afford tuition and will lose my chance to study at the University of Michigan,” she wrote.

Faculty members also depend on summer classes to make ends meet, particularly young adjunct instructors with families, Thompson said. While he didn’t know the exact number of faculty members who would’ve been impacted by the cuts, he said it likely would’ve been in the hundreds.

Thompson said the summer semester is a moneymaker for the college, which has about 300 full-time and 1,000 part-time instructors.

“It’s incoherent to me that cutting the summer would be the answer to our budget problems,” he said. “I hope we can step back and have adult conversations and work through solutions together in a collaborative way.”

In labor talks, the junior college and the faculty association are at impasse, with a state-appointed mediator attempting to bring the two sides to an agreement. Instructors say administrators are seeking to eliminate a formula that would cut their pay. They have charged college leaders with bloated spending on the administration and failing to properly address the school’s budget problems.

Chong, meanwhile, has said the school’s financial woes are “nobody’s fault.” SRJC faculty are paid competitively, he said, and the underlying drop in enrollment will make it difficult to avoid cuts that impact the classroom.

Roland Hughes, an adjunct communications studies instructor who teaches debate and speech courses, said his pair of summer classes would’ve been cut under the plan announced Thursday. The work accounts for a third of his total annual income.

“It’s devastating,” said Hughes, who was contacted by several students wondering if the college indeed planned to cut summer classes.

“They’re stunned and they’re all wondering what happens to them,” he said.

Chong assured staff that no one specific department or segment of the college community would feel the bulk of the pain.

The college has seen its enrollment decline for years, noted Debbie Albers, a full-time math instructor who has taught at SRJC for 23 years. However, she said, administrators should have involved the faculty before announcing such a severe proposal. It would have eliminated all summer math courses except for intermediate algebra, needed for students planning to take transfer-level courses in the fall.

“This was a bombshell dropped on everybody out of the blue,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish. You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 707-521-5458 or eloisa.gonzalez@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @eloisanews.

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