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Re-Imagining CR 

State’s new mission distresses fans of music, drama and historic preservation

Kjeld Lyth flicked on the main lights inside College of the Redwoods' new multi-million dollar Performing Arts Theater and strode agitatedly in, pointing out annoyances: noisily flushing toilets in the bathrooms that might disrupt quieter theatrical moments; loud fans in the back of the theater, which could make hearing difficult from the rear rows; large pockets of darkness where the spotty audience lighting failed to penetrate.

Lyth hit some switches and brilliant rows of colorful lights beamed down on the stage. There are 119 of the beauties and each one cost $261 -- Broadway could do no better, Lyth said. He did not look pleased. He swept around and walked to the back of the stage, parting the black curtain in the middle to reveal, inches away, a stark, white wall. There should be a space there, not a wall, he said -- space for dressing rooms, for building and storing sets, for moving set pieces around during a performance, for actors to hang out when they're not on stage or to move unseen across the stage to reposition during a performance. To reach the dressing room -- for there is a small one, behind the wall -- performers would have to exit side stage and double back.

"If ever there was a conflict between design and function, this is an example," Lyth said. Then he pointed at the bulky, boxy lectern planted stage right. "All they ever intended with the new space," he accused, "was to have it be a multipurpose facility for special guest speakers and PowerPoint presentations." With extravagant stage lights, he added.

You might forgive Lyth, who's the college's only on-faculty drama instructor -- although part-time, at that -- for sounding frustrated. In early February, he and other faculty learned that their programs might suffer reductions. A month later it was official: In a March 15 news release, the college administration announced it was reducing some course offerings so it could add others. It cited financial challenges and a mandate from the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office to focus on "three core missions -- degree transfer, career technical education and basic skills programs in English and math."

Additions, beginning with the summer and fall semesters, would occur not just in math and Enghlish, but in such subjects as speech, biology, sociology, psychology and Native American studies. Among the trims would be sections or courses in foreign language (French, German and Japanese), construction technology -- including within the popular and unique Historic Preservation and Restoration Technology program -- and anthropology. Also, the music program would be hit hard, losing half of its offerings -- mostly performance classes, including concert band, jazz ensemble, wind ensemble, chorale and opera production. (Core music courses needed by music majors to transfer to a four-year university would not be cut.) And the entire drama program would be closed, at least for now.

When the administration announced the cuts -- calling them suspensions, implying some could be revitalized later -- it noted that some of these classes might be offered instead as community education courses. Those courses can't be taken for credit, and students' fees pay the instructors' wages.

Lyth doubted his non-degree program would be brought back. "They've thrown me and the program under the bus -- the whole thing," he said, standing in the new theater on a recent late-March morning.

Lyth is slender, and his simple, dark clothes and thin beard, sideburns and moustache lend him a dignified-swashbuckler air. He's been with the drama program for 34 years, and is the principal instructor, although several non-faculty instructors have taught courses over the years as well. He and Ed Macan, chair of the music and drama programs, question the administration's methods for choosing which courses and programs to reduce -- methods that involved looking at course enrollment figures and financial viability, but also at whether courses and programs suited the new priorities of the California Community College Chancellor's Office. Were drama and music performance not important? Because, they said, they certainly weren't a financial burden. Macan, the lone full-time tenured music faculty member, had crunched some numbers and determined that from 2006 through 2012, with the exception of one year, enrollment in the music courses being cut was high enough to generate two times the amount of money that the college spent on them. That's a 110 percent profit-to expense margin, he wrote in a document he gave the administration in defense of sustaining music and drama.

"Drama, meanwhile, generated an incredible 202 percent profit/expense margin," Macan wrote. Later in the document he noted that profits made by the drama production class had, for 11 years, been used to pay for the next year's theaterical production.

Macan also determined that both programs had high retention rates over the past eight years -- almost always above 87 percent. And he suggested that eliminating performance classes might kill a person's incentive to sign up for the degree courses. Both he and Lyth consider the reduction in music and drama courses as, as Macan wrote, "part of a larger assault at the national level against the traditional liberal arts model."

The latest reductions were part of trend already begun at CR: Some drama and music courses had been reduced or even eliminated over the prior two years.

"They think classes like drama and music are simply superfluous," Lyth said.

Well, they're not entirely wrong -- but the blame for that attitude more rightly might fall on the chancellor's office and the governor -- or on the general dismal state of the state's financial and academic affairs.

 

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Ever since the economy began sliding south in 2008, the state has been giving community colleges less money. In a report published last month, the Public Policy Institute of California said that between 2008 and 2012, the state cut more than $1.5 billion from community colleges -- far more than during any past economic downturn. It said Prop. 30 funds put $200 million back in the collective colleges' coffers, but that was hardly enough to fix their deficits. The severe decline in money from the state hasn't been offset much by practically doubling student fees, either, said the report. Colleges have had to slash courses and staff and increase class sizes. For-credit classes were cut in many disciplines, with fine arts, education, physical education, music and dance programs suffering the most, the report said. Non-credit courses - especially ones directed at older students -- were proportionally cut even more. The number of students signing up for college had hit a 20-year low, with fewer new, fresh-from-high school students, the report said.  And graduation rates were dreary.

At College of the Redwoods -- which has campuses in Eureka and Crescent City and instruction sites in Hoopa, Garberville and Fort Bragg -- enrollment has mirrored the statewide trend. And, state funding has declined -- the college is getting 13 percent less for the 2012-13 school year than it received in 2008-09, said the college's marketing and communications director, Paul DeMark.

State funding is tied to what's called FTES -- full-time equivalent student. The number of FTESs is calculated by dividing the total number of credits that all students have signed up for by a full course load of 30 credits per school year. The state pays community colleges per FTES -- currently $4,564 each. At CR, those full-time equivalents have gone up and down in the past decade, but sometimes hovered close to 6,000: 5,700 in 2001-2002; 5,592 in in 2008-09 and 5,967 in 2009-10. By 2011-12, though, there were 4,709.

The enrollment upswing a few years ago, under then-president Jeff Marsee, is one of the things that hurt College of the Redwoods, said president Kathryn Smith in a recent phone interview at which DeMark also was present. Smith became president in May 2012.

"It was bad timing," she said, careful not to place blame on any one person. "We did have a decline in enrollment, and the board asked the president at the time to increase enrollment. Generally, if your enrollment goes up, you get paid more money. But as the college was growing enrollment, state finances were declining. And the state quit paying for those extra students."

That's when the college began dipping into its reserves to pay for the extra faculty hired to teach the extra students, Smith said. And it began cutting courses and course sections. That led to many students being put on wait lists to get into classes, especially math and English.

Meanwhile, operating expenses keep rising -- salaries and health benefits having the biggest impact, but also utilities. Many of these are costs, said Smith, the college has no control over. Faculty and classified staff get automatic annual raises, for instance, according to their union-negotiated contracts. To add to the college's duress, for several years now it has been under threat of losing its accreditation; this spring it narrowly kept it. Some of the issues have been whether the college is adequately assessing how students are doing and using the information to improve their "outcomes" -- a big worry in a state with declining college success rates -- and whether the college's institutional structure is efficient, cohesive and able to support the institution financially into the future. DeMark said the college has had to hire a special trustee and accreditation and financial consultants, adding to costs (he wasn't immediately able to specify how much).

 

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These financial troubles affect students the most, of course. In 2010, the state community colleges' Board of Governors convened a task force to figure out how to fix the problems facing community colleges, so they could improve student success. That led to the Student Success Act of 2012, passed by the Legislature in August 2012 and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown that September. It required community colleges to focus more resources on students with specific career- or higher-education goals, and to counsel new students, forming an education plan for each of them. The aim is to help more students finish college, and more quickly.

The act also puts the brakes on funding classes with high "repeatability" -- ones people tend to take for fun and repeat often. These are often called "lifelong learning" classes. Under the act, the state will no longer include multiple-repeats of certain courses in its FTES calculations. That means no money for those multiple repeats, which occur especially in physical education, performing and fine arts courses.

"Our revised mission is basic skills -- reading, writing and math, for students who are unprepared coming out of high school -- and on career technical education, and on transfer classes -- those classes for your degree that you're hoping to transfer to four-year schools," Smith said. The Chancellor's Office was pushing these priorities even before the Student Success Task Force issued its recommendations, she added. "They have taken the lifelong learning prong out of the mission."

She said this push is part of a national movement to re-vision how community colleges are funded, stemming in part from frustration that some people, for example, were repeating physical education courses to avoid paying health club fees. "Taxpayers were subsidizing them, because student fees don't cover the full cost of the class," Smith said. "And at some community colleges, classes were basically high school football practice."

The new focus, Smith reiterated, is aimed at helping get people more quickly "out into the workforce so they can contribute to the economy of the state of California."

Smith said there would be no official reprimands from the Chancellor's Office -- or the accreditation folks -- for not following the priorities detailed in law. But, she said, it is possible that if the college doesn't use state funds to build up its course offerings in the priority classes, students waiting to get into them might give up -- thereby affecting student learning outcomes. That could cause a big public outcry, she said, which might bring the accreditation folks back to sniff around again.

California community colleges have long been multifaceted institutions. Under the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education, they were supposed to be where anybody over 18 could access education. Courses were free, requirements minimal. Even now, with course fees in place and rising, it's generally cheaper to go to community college to get the basics out of the way before entering a spendier four-year university. And, yes, community colleges were intended to help get people into the workforce. But they also have long been where the community can go for personal enrichment -- to take a painting or a Pilates class, for instance, or play in a band.

Now that's changing.

 

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To tackle its deficit and meet the mission-change directives, College of the Redwoods has come up with a combination of solutions, Smith said.

It has eliminated 39 staff and management (not faculty) positions; of those, 23 resigned or retired and 16 were laid off. In July, two senior-level positions will be cut -- the vice president of instruction, a district-wide position; and the Mendocino dean's position. In addition, DeMark said, the dean of academics has recently resigned to take another job elsewhere and might not be replaced.

This year, all staff, managers and faculty have taken a payroll deduction equivalent to two days off a month, around a 9 percent pay cut that could save the college $1.6 million annually, Smith said. The college's trustees eliminated their monthly $240 stipend and have begun contributing $295 a month to their health benefits plan.

The college is looking to lease out for office space around 15,000 square feet of old campus structures, some declared seismically unfit to hold students. These include the old administration building, the old Forum Theater, the old library, and the old life science and physical science buildings on the Eureka campus, and some space on the Mendocino and Garberville campuses. This move could bring in at least $200,000 in annual revenue, said Smith.

Now, the college is negotiating with the staff and faculty unions to get them to agree to another 8-9 percent salary cut. Down the road, Smith said she'd like to see a discussion about getting them to pay some of their health benefits.

And, it's making those course offering changes. The college took two approaches to deciding what courses and programs to reduce -- or "suspend," in some cases, until times get better and/or the college decides whether they're needed.

First, after Smith and college trustees conferred, they weeded out courses or programs with low enrollment that aren't paying for themselves -- the state allocates funds based on enrollment. These included some construction technology, fire technology, business technology and anthropology classes.

Second, they cut courses or programs that didn't fit the Chancellor's Office mandate to focus on basics, even if, like drama and music performance, they were well-enrolled, had high completion rates and made more money than was spent on them.

Community members who want to be in a band or a theater company have other options, she said -- theater and music groups in town they can join.

"But if you want an English class, you have no other option but college," she said. "When you have limited resources you have to focus on the basics."

She agreed with Macan's contention that the music and drama courses being suspended for this year have made money for the college, although she said she hadn't examined Macan's figures in detail. It doesn't matter, she said. The state limits how many full-time equivalent students it will fund, and she's not willing to devote resources to offering non-priority courses.

"If I have $3,000 and my choice is to put it into a music class that makes money, or into an English class that also makes money -- even if it isn't as much -- I'm choosing the English class because it meets the Chancellor's priorities," she said.

DeMark also noted that in the past, other classes have gone from being for-credit to community education courses.

"Phlebotomy used to be taught at College of the Redwoods," he said. "It was turned into community ed. Medical assisting also went that route. And smog certification."

For now, many courses being cut or shifted to community education remain in the catalog because they might one day be returned to full status. The college can add or drop courses each year, Smith said, to adjust to changing enrollment and budget scenarios.

The college's hope is, once it adds more sections of English, math and other basics -- and hires instructors for them with money diverted from the eliminated courses -- enrollment will grow as all those students-in-waiting get in to their desired classes. Revenues will go up. (But even then, said Smith, it might not be enough, in which case yet more reorganizing will be in order.)

Even if enrollment doesn't rise dramatically and the money doesn't roll in, at least the college will be helping students toward their degrees and transfers, Smith said.

 

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About 50 people showed up for a Board of Trustees meeting on April 2 at the College of the Redwoods' main Eureka campus. During the public comment period, several were concerned about athletics cuts. And many were upset over hits to the music performance classes and to the historic preservation and restoration technology program -- one of those not considered to be pulling its enrollment and financial weight.

Alex Stillman, an Arcata City Councilmember, said she helped found the historic preservation program 17 years ago because Eureka has so much intact historical housing. The program is the only one of its kind on the West Coast.

A music student who wanted to enter Humboldt State as a junior said she would need the music performance courses at the college to get in. (Smith has said CR is working on this issue and will find a way to fix it.)

Bill Ryder, a musician who trained at College of the Redwoods and then Humboldt State, said his career led him to gigs singing in New York City and other places. Now he is a piano tuner locally, and he is married to Carol Ryder (one of the non-faculty drama instructors now out of a job, who has directed dozens of musical theater pieces at the old Forum Theater on campus).

"Community bands and choirs don't have technique programs," Bill Ryder said. "College of the Redwoods does. We live in an isolated area. We don't need 'enrichment classes' for our community. We need music education classes for our youth."

In the weeks before the meeting, Macan, the music professor and chair of drama and music, had had an e-mail exchange with President Smith in which he questioned the reasoning behind the reductions in music offerings.

He suggested that taking the occasional music course might be just what makes college tolerable for some students pursuing other degrees.

Offering only basics, he wrote, means "embracing a neo-feudal social vision in which our ‘drones' will be remediated in high school math and English, taught vocational skills and given a very narrow core of transferable G.E. courses."

Lyth, the drama instructor, likewise insists his program is important to the community.

"In the 34 years I've been at College of the Redwoods, I've had hundreds of students from local high schools," he said one day last month, while standing inside the old Forum Theater. "They come to me and get further training, then these local kids go out into the community and perform in all the local theaters. And they go to Humboldt State, too. It's had a huge impact for such a tiny, tiny program."

He returned to his theme about the extravagance of the new theater -- and its purpose. The old Forum Theater has just 20 stage lights -- and that, he said, worked fine for him. Stacks of plywood leaned against a backstage wall -- set-building material, which Lyth has paid for out of his own pocket. A scrap of bright blue feather lay on the dark stage floor, amid a general faint sheen of dropped glitter.

The new theater has some good qualities, Lyth allowed. It's got a bigger stage than the old one. And, back in 2009, he had a chance to consult briefly with the architects and he asked for a loading dock to be added to the design. It was done. So that was nice. But his other suggestions -- especially his request for more backstage space -- were ignored, he said.

The new theater opened last August. It is part of a larger project, completed in May, including a student services/administration building. The entire project cost $19.3 million -- $16.1 million came from the state and the rest, $3.2 million, from the Measure Q bond passed by local voters in 2004, said DeMark, the college spokesperson. The theater's cost was not separated out, he said, adding that architects did take input from faculty. Then-president Jeff Marsee signed off on the final design.

DeMark said the new theater is supposed to serve the same purposes as the old one, a place for lectures, meetings events, concerts and drama productions, which will continue even if some performers are taking community education classes instead of classes for credit. So far it has been a venue for jazz and concert band performances, and for a high school play.

 

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Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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