It's a time of change at Central Oregon Community College.
This week COCC President Jim Middleton announced he would retire in 2014. The college is dealing with a changing state aid structure that will move away from per-student funding to merit funding that takes into account the college's success. And this May, five of the seven positions on the COCC board of directors are up for election. In the past year the board has seen a great deal of turnover, although just one of the spots is contested.
Here's a look at the candidates:
Joe Krenowicz, 56, is running unopposed for a position currently held by Don Reeder, who will not seek re-election. Reeder has served on the board since 1997, representing Jefferson County, the northernmost precinct of Deschutes County and a small piece of Wasco County.
Krenowicz said he's been serving on the college's budget committee for several years with the hope of succeeding Reeder. He became interested in the college because of the role that good education plays in a strong economy. He also has helped with fundraising for COCC and worked to get COCC's bond passed in 2009, which helped create the new education center in Madras.
Krenowicz believes there are several challenges facing the college.
“We've had a large increase in the student population and it's starting to level out, so we hope it continues to grow at a lot more reasonable rate,” he said. Beyond student growth, he said finances will be the other big issue.
“The challenge in the near future is with our payroll costs, with regards to PERS ... along with our future health-care costs,” he said. “That's a major concern as far as the budget goes.”
Krenowicz said he'd like to see the college focus on meeting business and industry needs, but believes the Madras campus has been a boon for the area.
“It's been very well received by the community,” he said. “We always have a full parking lot. We certainly needed it.”
Laura Craska Cooper, 47, was appointed in September to represent all of Crook County, parts of Klamath and Lake counties and the easternmost precincts of Deschutes County. She replaced Joyce Garrett, who had served on the board since 2004.
Before joining the board, Craska Cooper was on the college budget committee for two years.
She was drawn to the board post by her belief that the college is a “terrific resource” for the community, and considers it particularly important because of the high unemployment rate in Crook County.
“Education is one of those things that not only helps people improve themselves and provides job prospects, it's an economic development driver,” she said.
While she's certain COCC can help the community, she is concerned primarily about financial challenges the college faces.
“We have an ever-growing liability to PERS ... and we face the rising costs of health care,” she said. “And how does that contribute to education? It doesn't. How does it contribute to our mission of what we do? It doesn't, so that just really worries me. ... We're (one of) the most affordable community colleges in the state, but that doesn't mean that we're affordable to everybody. I think the challenge we have is that in a time of dwindling financial resources and challenging economic times, we're going to have to do more with less and find more efficiencies.”
Tony Dorsch, 72, has served on the COCC board for 16 years. He is running unopposed for reelection, and is most concerned about the college's finances moving forward.
“I have never sat through budget hearings except the last two years that have been so tentative,” he said. “Fortunately, our property taxes in Central Oregon have come up a little bit, but the bad news is as soon as we get more property tax we get less state tax because of the formula.”
He said while voting to increase tuition was hard, he is pleased that COCC still boasts the second lowest tuition in the state. “It is hard, trying to project a budget when there are so many uncertainties and variables.”
The only contested race for a spot on COCC's board is between David Ford and Adele McAfee, to represent parts of Bend.
Ford, 61, currently holds the position. He said given the current amount of turnover on the board, it's important to have consistency.
Ford said much is up in the air right now, from Middleton moving on to the state's move toward outcome-based funding to potential changes to how higher education is governed at the state level.
“All these people are great people, but they're also new to the board and new to the college,” Ford said. “I felt that it was really important to have consistency as much as we can, and to have more turnover ... would make it that much more potentially challenging.”
In light of the changes, Ford believes the college has worked hard to be consistent for students.
“I think we've done a good job of keeping tuition down, and having incremental increases rather than one big huge increase,” he said. “In response to lower state funding and lower property taxes, our hand was pretty much forced.”
Ford believes the college has made “major strides” trying to increase access by offering classes on campuses in Prineville and Madras and with increased offerings in Redmond.
“I think now the focus needs to be shifted more toward student success,” he said. “I said at last week's board meeting that while we're talking about raising tuition and fees, I wanted to see how we are committing to utilize those resources to enhance student success.”
McAfee, 59, said she's passionate about community colleges because at age 42, she went to a community college in California in order to get a living-wage job.
“It gave me the tools I needed to succeed,” she said. After two years, she transferred to a four-year college and earned a paralegal certificate.
For McAfee, the mission of a community college is twofold: to be accessible and affordable to everyone.
“I believe that education is an economic imperative in the 21st century, so if I'm elected to the board, those are the two things I'd focus on: keeping and extending access while maintaining low tuition and the standards of excellence.”
Focusing on online learning, McAfee believes, will help prevent declining enrollments and the need to increase tuition.
McAfee believes she is a strong candidate because of her experience as a community college student, and also because of her work on the La Pine City Council.
She pointed to COCC's proposed 2013-2014 budget, which features $22 million earmarked to plan and construct a new residence hall.
“With the reality of limited resources and financial constraints, any investment made should be measured by the greatest number of students it's going to impact,” she said. “Instead I'd push for investments in technology and the technical infrastructure to expand and reach more students with classes that are online.”
Ford noted the board had not yet decided whether to go forward with the student housing, and that the $22 million would be issued in full faith and credit bonds which couldn't be used for anything but the construction.
Vikki Ricks, 60, was appointed in February to fill the position left vacant by John Overbay, who began serving on the board in 1999. Before moving to La Pine in 2011, Ricks worked as an elementary teacher in Idaho for 19 years, then at the Oregon Department of Education for several years before finishing her career with three years in the Fern Ridge School District.
“I'm very interested in education for the students here in the area, because we have La Pine, and we also have Gilchrist High School and North Lake. It's really rural, and I want them to have access to higher education,” she said.
She believes a major issue moving forward will be to work closely with Oregon State University-Cascades Campus as it prepares to be a full, four-year institution.
Ricks recently joined the adult education committee that meets in La Pine, and hopes to focus her efforts on the area.
“What I'd like to see, from my area in La Pine, is access to college for the students down here. You know it's 65 miles round trip, and in the winter it's not pleasant,” she said. “We want to get as many (local students) as we can that are interested in either a certificate program or college transfer credits.”