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Other Voices: Road to reform is a rocky one at Sierra College

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me what I had learned after a year and a half of serving as a Sierra College Trustee, and I was inspired to give that some thought.

It has always been my belief that reforming any institution or organization is a difficult, long-term task that requires tenacity, commitment and resolve. By its nature, a reform effort seeks to change something for the better, which means changing what the people inside the organization expect, consider and do.

If you look at the many efforts at governmental reform in our history, some have been a tremendous success; others have failed spectacularly.



Consider California’s Governor Hiram Johnson, who served from 1911 to 1917, fought the railroad barons that were using the state’s influence for their own profit. He fought for the initiative process, the referendum process, and the recall process. He fought for a woman’s right to vote and free textbooks in public schools. His efforts were a turning point for our state, and California was once again of the people, by the people and for the people.

Consider another son of California, President Ronald Reagan. He knew that a government welfare check could never replace the effects of Americans working hard to improve their own futures. His election was a turning point for our country, and sparked such reforms in our way of life and way of thinking that politics has never been the same: even President Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over” and signed additional Reagan-inspired welfare reforms into law.




I believe Sierra College experienced a similar turning point when voters chose over the course of several elections to send reform-minded trustees to its board.

Before I was elected, the college had just cut hundreds of course sections, slashed student programs, borrowed $7 million against an already strapped operating budget for critical facility needs, and then raised pay for college executives.

Our facilities and infrastructure was crumbling; college operations would grind to a halt if our antiquated telephone and computer systems failed. Buildings hadn’t been properly maintained for years, either through lack of funds or lack of priority.

The action plan we pursued was simple: pass the first balanced budget in four years. Negotiate a multi-year compensation plan for the engine of student learning (our faculty and staff), one that allows us to be competitive for the best people, but keeps our budget on track. Be more efficient and cut spending elsewhere to increase facilities maintenance and repair funds by 70 percent. Begin planning to deal with the long-term problems on the horizon, like retiree medical benefits. Explore ways to fund the repair of classroom facilities and critical infrastructure before they crumble.

In the last 18 months, we’ve done all of those things, as well as reform the college’s governance to increase faculty and staff input into the decision-making process; establish plans for an Early College High School in Nevada County that can give students a high school diploma and two-year degree in just five years; and lay the groundwork to replicate the Early College movement across the entire district.

So to answer that friend’s question, it seems to me that the golden threads running through every successful reform effort in history have been as follows: the willingness to make bold, tough decisions to do what is right; the understanding that you will be criticized or even vilified in the short-term by those with a vested interest in the current system; and the tenacity and resolve to stay the course through hardship.

After the last 18 months, I think it’s pretty clear to my fellow citizens that I’m not at Sierra College to fill a chair or to do small things. I am passionate about increasing access to college, and I’m dedicated to the success of our efforts to reform this institution that is so important and critical to our community’s future. I look forward to the future; it is very bright for our region.

ooo

Aaron Klein was elected for a four-year term to the Sierra College Board of Trustees in 2004.


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