War of the Colleges

by Freda Moon, June 10, 2009

On the Mendocino Coast even something as seemingly mundane as a Community College Interest Group can be hotbed of radicalism, dissent and controversy. For good or ill, an issue that would inspire a letter-writing campaign elsewhere—the proposed transfer of a professor, in this case—incites a secession movement in Fort Bragg.

No, the town isn't threatening to excise itself from the United States, a la Texas Governor Rick Perry. But it is angry enough with the Eureka-based College of the Redwoods administration to consider breaking from the CR Community College district entirely. The move—not for the weak of heart—would divorce Fort Bragg's campus from Humboldt County and marry it to Ukiah's Mendocino College or Sonoma County's Santa Rosa J.C. Another, probably far-fetched, idea would turn Fort Bragg Unified into a K-14 school district—and the local CR campus into an extension of Fort Bragg High. The campus could also strike out on its own, becoming a free-standing community college district. At about 1,000 students strong, it would be almost half the size of the smallest such district in the state, joining the ranks of 70 other, larger, more powerful entities.

The men and women toying with these big ideas are members of the tactfully-named Community College Interest Group. They include Fort Bragg Mayor Doug Hammerstrom, Vice Mayor Dave Turner and City Manager Linda Ruffing, as well as the Superintendent of Mendocino County Schools, Paul Tichinin, and current and former CR professors and students. All involved are quick to say that some of these ideas are more unlikely than others, and that their eager little interest group is only considering the town's options, not making rash decisions.

Even so, CR president Jeff Marsee is not happy. In a recent letter to Mayor Hammerstrom, Marsee responded to the group's agenda. “It was my understanding any advisory committee activity would include me as the College District's President,” wrote Marsee. “It was also apparent that working together to improve the programs at [CR Mendocino Coast] was not the purpose of the meeting,” Marsee continued. “Therefore, I am advising you that as the President/Superintendent, I am not endorsing this meeting nor the committee's supposed function.”

Sanctioned or not, the group is pushing on. At a May 7 meeting, a couple dozen people huddled around tables, arranged in a cozy U-shaped configuration, at Fort Bragg's town hall. Among the layers of organizational busy work—what should they call themselves, how they should run their meetings and what decision-making process they should employ (majority rules or consensus)—there was actual news: Two members of the group, Russell and Sylvia Bartley, had met with Mendocino College's president, Kathy Lehner. According to the Bartleys, Lehner gave them “the very distinct impression she, personally, is open to exploring the full range of options.” The most obvious option, of course, being this: the Mendocino Coast campus sheds its CR skin and is adopted by the district just over the hill, Lehner's Mendocino College.

The reasons for Fort Bragg's disaffection are many, but they're not unusual. They include complaints about lack of funding, inadequate and ill-suited course offerings and a top-down style of management that critics say puts business interests above community interests. These long-simmering frustrations came to a head in recent months, when Marsee—who was appointed CR President/Superintendent in July, 2008—threatened to transfer professor Greg Grantham, the head of the local Marine Science program, to the main Eureka campus.

Marsee was likely unprepared for what the proposed transfer set in motion. The uproar that followed wasn't only a response to Grantham's popularity (though he does seem to be something akin to Mendocino's version of a celebrity academic). It also reflects the importance of the marine science program itself—a program that has become part of Fort Bragg's vision of its own future.

The 415-acre former Georgia-Pacific mill site is still being scrubbed of dioxin, but city planners are already charting the property's redevelopment. One widely embraced plan for the prized land includes the construction of a “state of the art” marine science lab. But if the CR program were to move to Eureka, the city's plan might mosey on with it.

It looks as if Marsee has relented and officially backpedaled from his threat to transfer Grantham, at least for the time being. He says that Grantham will stay in Fort Bragg for another year, but that “the condition is that they revitalize the program,” which has faced low enrollment numbers in recent years. “The question is,” he said, “is there an interest?” Marsee points to four scholarships available for students of the marine science program, which—as of Friday—had received only one applicant. “How long do you keep this going,” he asked, “before you realize that the game's over?”

Regardless, now that Marsee's opened the floodgates of criticism, it seems there's no going back. One issue on the Interest Group's radar is Measure Q, the $40.3 million bond measure passed in 2004, which was touted as a way to pay for renovations to CR's outdated facilities and the construction of new classrooms and labs. Nearly 74 percent of the Mendocino Coast voted for the measure—compared with 64 percent throughout the district, which includes portions of Trinity, Del Norte and Humboldt Counties. But now that most of the bond money has been spent—or is slated for spending—there are questions about how it was used and whether the distribution was fair.

But good luck getting an answer from the Eureka-based CR administration. Or anyone else, for that matter. Because the bond money is raised based on assessed property values in each county, one obvious question is how much revenue went into CR's coffers from each of the four counties that make up CR's district—and, in turn, how much money went back to each county for Measure Q-funded projects.

In search of this seemingly straight-forward piece of information, I spoke to a virtual who's who of relevant CR bigwigs. No one had—or at least no one would give—an answer. Not CR Trustee Will Smith, who said he supported the Interest Group's work and would look into Measure Q, but didn't know the information off-hand. Not Geisce Ly, Dean of the Mendocino Coast campus, who—new to his post—seemed to barely understand what Measure Q was. Not President Marsee or his Vice President of Administrative Services Ruth Bettenhousen or his Director of Accounting Vinci Adams.

Even Phoebe Graubard, the Mendocino representative on the Measure Q Citizen's Bond Oversight Committee—and the person specifically charged with representing the local community on Measure Q spending—couldn't say. She says that Will Smith asked her to do her “civic duty” and sit on the committee, “but all the money had been spent.” She attends Oversight Committee meetings by teleconference. But, she says, “they're once a quarter and they're for an hour, so you're not talking to someone who knows much.”

Though nearly all of the Measure Q spending was set in stone long before President Marsee began his tenure as CR's head honcho, he's clearly defensive about how the money was used. In a recent email to yours truly, Marsee writes that he finds it “interesting” that Mendocino received 18% of the $31.6 million that's already been budgeted, while enrolling only ten percent of the district's total student body. But Marsee is working with fuzzy numbers.

The most recent Measure Q audit—which was prepared by an independent accounting office, Matson and Isom—lists each budgeted project (from Eureka's new $2,000 firing range to their $2.6 million student services and administration building), along with the amount that has already been spent on the work. The report shows that a total of about $5.6 million will go to the Mendocino campus, mostly to “modernize” the library and education center. That's about 14% of the $40.3 million total bond—and nowhere near the 18 percent cited by Marsee. At the same time, the Mendocino Coast pays 20 percent of the bond, according to Humboldt County's Senior Accountant-Auditor, Joe Mellett, who is also responsible for setting the bond tax rates each year.

But Marsee's not interested in those numbers. In February, he canceled construction on Eureka's new $11.5 million student union building (of which $572,000 had already been spent). Because that money is now being re-budgeted, he suggests that the $40.3 million total is no longer relevant. That, apparently, is how he came up with the mysterious 18 percent figure. Here's the rub: Marsee will not say whether any of the $11 million in Student Center savings will go to Fort Bragg. Instead, he said that the spending's “likely emphasis” will be in Del Norte, “because they don't have a lab, which Mendocino does.”

On Friday, Marsee visited Fort Bragg on what he called an “orientation tour.” But the field trip—on which he was joined by the President and Vice President of Mendocino College—yielded results. According to Marsee, the conclusion he got from the field trip was this: “The Mendocino College President is not able to assume the ongoing budget deficit of $500,000 a year that the Mendocino Center incurs,” Marsee said. “Mendocino [College] is, quite frankly, looking at ways to make budget cuts work.” Aligning with the Mendocino Coast campus, he concluded, is something they're not prepared to do.

While in town, Marsee also met with Mayor Hammerstrom and Vice Mayor Turner. At that meeting, Marsee asked that the Community College Interest Group disband. The group would be replaced by a new advisory committee, convened by Marsee and composed of what he called “true interested parties.” He gave the city a mid-July deadline. “What we're asking for,” Marsee said, “is that there be a conclusion to this.”

“As of now the mayor's committee is sort of looking for ways to break away from the college,” Marsee said. “We're anxious to accept their report, but we're not interested in having that group be a standing committee.”

Having already dissuaded Mendocino College from its interest in the Coast campus, Marsee's turned to thinly veiled economic threats in his effort to crush Fort Bragg's mini rebellion. If Mendocino's campus decides to separate, Marsee says he will “probably” not contest the change—but the community would have to buy everything now owned CR: the land, the assets, etc. Furthermore, because of its size and limited course offerings, Fort Bragg's campus wouldn't be accredited as an independent district, he says. “This is very important because without accreditation students cannot receive federal financial aid—and without federal financial aid, the campus would cease to exist.”

Meanwhile, the Community College Interest Group goes about their quiet business, plotting—or as they'd likely put it: researching—Mendocino's possible secession from the College of the Redwoods. They meet this Thursday, June 11, at 10am at Fort Bragg's Town Hall.

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