Golden State still the land of opportunity

Local leaders envision a brighter future for community colleges and their students

By Albert H. Fulcher, Holly Angeles, Hugo Cayaros

Published: Monday, November 30, 2009

These are not the golden years for the Golden State. California has been devastated by an economic meltdown and gaping budget deficits that have forced destructive cuts on our state’s once-stellar education system. Contracting university and community college budgets are forcing hundreds of thousands of California students out of the system or hanging on for dear life as they try to pick up classes.

Southwestern College Sun reporters interviewed State Assemblymember Marty Block, Chula Vista Mayor Dr. Cheryl Cox and SWC Superintendent Dr. Raj K. Chopra.

Following are highlights of these interviews.

SUN: Other than the nice weather, why should a student invest their future in California?

California Assembly Member Marty Block: While the weather is certainly a selling point, the real reason for students to invest in California is because this state has always been a social and economic leader for the country and the world. California has a diverse economy and has long been at the forefront of both technological and artistic development. With the emerging opportunities in the new green technology industries, California students have the chance to be involved in building the economy of the future. It is said that where California goes, the nation follows, and students who invest in California now will be able to shape the direction of our state and our country.

Chula Vista Mayor Dr. Cheryl Cox: California has long been a region of opportunity. It is more than the weather and more than the diversity of its geography. If you like a challenge, seek an educational path that leads to a career in environmental preservation. Californians are sticklers for protecting the air we breathe, the water we drink, and indigenous wildlife and habitat.

If you have a flair for the dramatic, follow the path that takes you in front of the camera or behind it. The San Diego Film Commission is just one of the entities that values performance. Our museums are plenty, as are art galleries and stages for one person or a full cast.

Interested in science? UCSD has more Nobel Prize winners than you might imagine. How about technology? The Silicon Valley led the nation for years in using and improvising new technologies, including the latest in robotic technology. Or a career in culinary sciences? California chefs prefer garden fresh vegetables. Their culinary art includes fusion cuisine, as you might guess, a blend of the many cultures of California.

Right here in San Diego, we have opportunities ranging from vertical gardening and hydroponics to the farming fields of Carlsbad and the San Joaquin Valley. Maybe education is a career rather than a path. California’s UC and CSU systems are among the top in the nation.

Superintendent Raj K. Chopra: California’s comprehensive system of public higher education provides students with exciting and unlimited opportunities to achieve their educational goals in locations that are close to home or work, at convenient times, and affordable cost. With outstanding faculty and staff, and excellent student support programs, our institution’s central mission is the student. The real challenge is for businesses to provide employment opportunities for growth and prosperity to avoid the lack of an available prepared workforce.

We must remain optimistic and hopeful that the business climate will improve in creating opportunities in new areas where the spirit of entrepreneurship and innovation in California will prevail. Students must know that their excellent college preparation and their persistence and perseverance will open many employment possibilities, including many amazing new opportunities. As a leader in public higher education, California is home to 110 community colleges, serving over 2.5 million students, and 10 University of California campuses, serving over 220,000 students. The American dream is within reach of all Californians.

SUN: As a public official, how do you plan on dealing with the rising admissions and cutting of budgets, classes and staff?

California Assembly Member Marty Block: As a retired college professor and former community college trustee, I understand the critical importance of strong community college funding. More students than ever are attending California’s community colleges not only with the goal of transferring to a four-year university, but also for professional and career technical education. Like all state entities, the community colleges have been impacted by California’s financial situation. However, there is good news. Our new 2009-2010 budget takes the admissions for growth of the community colleges into account, and we’re allocating $185.4 million to fund 36,000 new full-time students.

Chula Vista Mayor Dr. Cheryl Cox: Students from the South Bay have few choices for a four-year college or university experience south of Interstate 8. The good news for local students is that land acquisition agreements were signed last spring, putting in place the conditions that begin a two-year timeline for the Otay Land and Otay Ranch Companies to process development entitlements while Chula Vista strengthens its partnerships for higher education, continuing education, and career tech programs that lead to jobs and good careers.

As admission request rise, public policy must provide job training and education. I hope that in the months ahead, the job and education partnerships already in place thrive, multiply, and generate new relationships in education, commerce and research.

Superintendent Raj K. Chopra: As Superintendent/President, I serve on the San Diego and Imperial Counties Community Colleges Association (SDICCCA). The goal of the SDICCA is to bring together the community college leadership to collaborate on public policy initiatives that focus on ensuring our community colleges remain affordable, effective, and efficient as we meet the educational needs of the region. Southwestern College has strategically planned its instructional program to maintain access and maximize efficiency, whereby students can enroll in classes throughout our service area-Chula Vista, Coronado, National City, San Ysidro, and Otay Mesa. The “cutting of budgets” is accomplished utilizing an organized and thoughtful process that involves the input of classified professionals, faculty, staff, students and an administrative team. It is our intent to reduce the impact on staff by carefully analyzing the organizational structure of our institution and realigning for organizational and cost effectiveness.

SUN: Describe how the current state budget crises affect community colleges.

California Assembly Member Marty Block: California’s community colleges have become one of the front lines in addressing our state’s economic crisis. The career technical training community colleges provide lead to high-paying trade jobs, and our academic programs are among the finest in the world. We know that investing in our students is the most effective way to restore California’s economic strength, and so keeping community college accessible and affordable is one of the highlights of our 2009-2010 budget.

Chula Vista Mayor Dr. Cheryl Cox: Mayors are local government official with little influence in the way the state spends taxpayer funds or in which community college programs are cut or at risk of being cut. Budget disruption at the state level creates uncertainty at the local level, leaving us to conclude that we should plan to do what we need to do on our own.

Superintendent Raj K. Chopra: The budget crisis impacts all segments of education. The governor and the legislature have recognized the invaluable role community colleges play in this time of high unemployment and limited financial resources. At Southwestern College, we have taken certain proactive steps in monitoring and curtailing expenditures that have prepared us to address the difficult budget situation. Without such measures, the situation would be significantly worse. It must be noted that this budget challenge will be with us at least through the 2010-11 fiscal year. Therefore, we need to continue to proceed cautiously and conservatively in all our budget decisions.

SUN: How can students best prepare themselves for competing in today’s troubled job market?

California Assembly Member Marty Block: In today’s difficult job market, the two greatest assets a job seeker can have are education and determination. Despite the highly publicized fights over education in our state, California’s colleges and universities are still among the best in the nation. Education prepares students to compete in a job market that requires a skilled labor force to work in a 21st century economy.

But in troubled times, education alone is not enough. Students must demonstrate a willingness to work hard, and not be discouraged if finding a job right away is not easy. While in school, internships provide valuable experience and valuable contacts. There are still jobs out there, but it may take more work to find them. Your school’s career counselors can be an invaluable resource when it comes to fine tuning a resume or preparing for an interview, and these are little things that make a big difference in a difficult economy.

Chula Vista Mayor Dr. Cheryl Cox: Employers want to hire the best candidate for the job. Students who make the connection between their studies and the careers they seek have strong potential for the employer. Develop a habit of showing up on time. Dress for the interview. Know the business for which you’re interviewing. Be candid about your strengths and be ready to recognize your shortcomings-then seek to overcome them!

Superintendent Raj K. Chopra: The students should select academic courses that fit in with their future plans. A strong academic background and positive attitude will propel them towards the accomplishment of their goals. They must remember that when preparation meets persistence and perseverance, connected with their overall purpose, they can overcome.

SUN: What do you feel that students can do to participate in resolving the educational crises in California?

California Assembly Member Marty Block: The best advice to current students is to stick with it. California’s higher education system is going through a difficult period, but it is far from broken. The education received at California’s colleges and universities is still the best public education available anywhere. Becoming educated and finding a good job in California are the best things that students can do to help the state through these troubled times.

Chula Vista Mayor Dr. Cheryl Cox: There is no doubt that education impacts the kind of jobs one can get. A good job pays well. A better job pays well, has benefits such as healthcare, offers upward mobility and job satisfaction. Become a part of the solution. Crises come and go. The key is to keep looking ahead for opportunities. Knock on the door. Don’t wait for it to open on its own.

Superintendent Raj K. Chopra: First and foremost, stay in school. More than ever, students must see clearly the dual objective of education for living and education for making a living. Know that the students sitting in today’s classrooms are the future workers and leaders who will make important decisions. They must understand the issues objectively without being influenced by any interest group. This understanding will guide them towards actions they may take.

The Human Chord

Campus chaos is excruciating for us to watch

By Albert H. Fulcher

Published: Monday, November 30, 2009

Witnessing events through the lens of a camera brings a close-up perspective of the surrounding world in the eyes of a photographer. Every time the shutter clicks, it creates a photo of a moment that can be kept, treasured and shared, and engraves a permanent image in the mind of the photographer. This was my experience, working as a photojournalist at the governing board’s reorganization meeting last April.

This was an exceptionally emotional and volatile meeting. On the agenda were several items affecting the lives of Southwestern College’s students, faculty and staff. Watching the drama unfold behind the camera as several positions, programs and departments were eliminated left unsettling images engraved in my mind that I will not soon forget.

I still see the faces of students as they plead with the governing board to reconsider their stand on faculty reassign time. Invaluable time lost with faculty that these students believe to be a stronghold in their continuing education. Images of Blackwater protestors fill my head of them declaring their opposition to SWC partnering up with such a controversial company.

With several high profile and essential positions being cut, faculty and staff did their best to get the board to reconsider the layoff of Sylvia Lugo, performing arts coordinator, and Elisandra Singh, creator and manager of SWC’s web site.

Anger and despair showed vividly on the face of Outreach Director Fernando Poveda as he spoke of a letter from the superintendent of the Sweetwater Union High School District to Superintendent Chopra that called for his dismissal due to his involvement in uncovering the sexual-harassment scandal with Greg Sandoval. Determination, uncertainty and disbelief were captured in the face of Nevada Smith, director of community and media relations, as she defined her list of accomplishments at SWC and defended her job.

Business majors and faculty begged the board not to dismantle the School of Business.

For the most part these pleas fell on deaf ears. Board member Nick Aguilar asked many questions that the rest of the board refused to answer with any clear detail. Aguilar, along with ASO President Leticia Diaz, expressed their concerns with Chopra’s all-or-nothing package. They asked that the measure be broken up or tabled for further investigation into the discriminating letter and time to consider the recommendations of staff and faculty willingly offering their own pay and time as an alternative to these drastic layoffs and changes.

Tears flowed from students, staff and faculty as they offered other alternatives than the firing of these essential personnel and the removable of viable SWC departments.

All in one, the reorganization package passed with a majority. Only Aguilar and Diaz voted not to accept the deal. Jobs were lost, positions eliminated and departments dismantled.

All taxpayer-sponsored governing board meetings are open to the public and so they should be. Here at SWC meetings are generally held in spaces that only accommodate a small number of people and many miss the opportunity to see their elected and hired officials in action. Members of the governing board bickering with each other like preschoolers’ fighting over a toy is a sight that every voter should have the opportunity to witness. Perhaps if they did, they will be much more aware the next time that the voting polls come around. I know that as a student and a citizen, I will.

Governing board meetings, at a minimum, should be held in Mayan Hall or even Devore Stadium, giving every student, staff and faculty and concerned citizen the ability to watch the circus.

The Human Chord

To save SWC Chopra, board need to go

By Albert H. Fulcher

Published: Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Let’s cut to the chase: Southwestern College Superintendent Dr. Raj K. Chopra should be fired immediately. Governing board members Dr. Jean Roesch, Yolanda Salcido, Jorge Dominguez and Terri Valladolid should be recalled.

Unfortunately, spending precious taxpayer’s money on such a process is not a good option at this time. Money belts are tight most everywhere. But those who are really concerned about obtaining their educational goals and keeping their jobs need to remember these names in November 2010 when elections come around again. Regardless of political affiliation, it is time to find a governing board that truly works for the student body and the SWC community.

Our governing board once again has demonstrated its calloused opinion of the importance of providing the essential tools for SWC’s students in this time of nationwide economic crisis. Over a measly two percent budget gap this year they are chopping an unprecedented 26 percent of classes this coming spring semester.

I often question myself on who really works for whom here. Hierarchy is distorted leaving the students and citizens at the bottom and the majority of the governing board blindly following Chopra off a cliff, rather than managing him. They are slaves to the almighty dollar.

It is clearly evident to me that they have come to these make these decisions on there own without considering the viable alternative solutions offered by faculty and staff. There are many avenues other than this ill-begotten plan that should be considered first. We have reserves and the willingness of the heart and soul of SWC to work with. Profit made last year is enough to cover the gap in the budget this year.

Despite their claims, if the board and Chopra had really listened to faculty recommendations on how to deal with this budget gap there would not have been so many deans, chairs, students and staff pleading with the board not to strip away at the foundations of this institution.

In speaking with many deans and chairs, this was not a negotiation, but an order.

Faculty and staff are the students only allies here. They have continuously come to our defense in attempting to do what they love to do, teach and work for the students. They have offered their own pay to keep essential personnel and programs that are part of the foundations of SWC’s spirit. But as always, stone cold faces and deaf ears are the response that they receive.

Trustee Nick Aguilar and our ASO president Chris DeBauche are the only people on the dais that stand up for the students, requesting that these alternative good proposals be considered during this time of cuts, layoffs and controversies.

It is in vain, though, as the rest of the board has as much disregard for their opinion as they do the Brown Act which demands transparency of their every action and decision. They make secret contracts with disreputable companies like Blackwater and openly speak of separate meeting of discussions on these all-or-nothing packages that Chopra proposes.

So-called educators are squashing Southwestern’s spirit with corporate mentality. This is a serious matter that could possibly even affect this college’s accreditation. Then all the hard work of every student here would also have been done in vain.

If you do not make your voice heard, nothing will be done. When you are unable to get the classes that you need, have to travel to another college, add an additional two or three years to your college education plans, or give up all together, you will have no one to blame but yourself. When you do nothing to change what is happening here in your own community, it will remain the same.

This is not the time to be complacent. Get involved, get your family involved and let the officials that represent us from Chula Vista to Sacramento know that this is not acceptable and can not be tolerated.

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