Our View: Audit would help restore confidence at Sierra College

Our View
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The Sierra College Board of Trustees did the right thing last week in reversing pay cuts for instructors made when forecasts indicated such reductions were critical. Now, trustees can take the next logical step and demand a financial audit to ensure such a miscalculation doesn’t happen again. “A bad call was made and we need to take a leadership role,” retiring trustee Bill Martin said at the board meeting, a session that resulted in the unanimous vote to reinstate pay from July forward. Leadership begins with identifying mistakes and continues with correcting them. Auditing the financial trail that led to the cuts — 2 percent for part-time instructors and 5 percent for full-time teachers — will help administrators, staff and board members understand how to sharpen their projections. Much depends on accurate financial forecasts at Sierra, just as it does at any other institution or business. A rosy revenue forecast, followed by reckless spending, is a recipe for disaster. Need more evidence? Call your state legislator. On the other hand, a dire prediction is a safer bet, but there are repercussions. In this case, teachers and part-time instructors saw wage cuts, classes were cancelled, and parking fees and other student fees were raised to head off the economic shortfall cited in February. Deep reductions were made to sports and vocational/technical programs, and six additional unpaid furlough days were added for non-instructional staff. Student services, counseling and transfer assistance programs were reduced as well. Sierra’s chief business officer apparently knew of the imbalance in June, but chose not to act. “Hopefully my pencil will get sharper,” Doug Smith said. An independent audit will help Smith, college President Leo Chavez and the board recognize the challenges and obstacles of their forecasts. It also will help in the transition for Sierra’s new president, after Chavez retires in June. Most of all, an audit will be a step in restoring the confidence of Sierra’s faculty. In addition to the pay cuts, faculty members returned nearly $1 million in unused department funds to help with the budget crisis. Sierra faculty members have been resilient in this economic downturn. Some have tried to raise money personally for sports programs. Others have done the same for crucial automotive and vocational classes — key programs that offer a path to living-wage jobs in a tough economy. They deserve a better answer than a “sharper pencil.” At the same time, Sierra’s faculty bargaining groups should also be wary of what’s to come. Although many say the national recession ended in June 2009, one would be hard-pressed to find many people in Placer County who would agree. California’s community college funding plan is far from certain, and continued state budget deficits are a threat to every fiscal allocation for education. Another rough year could put the college back in the situation it thought it was in earlier this year. First things first. Conduct an audit of Sierra’s true financial condition and share it with faculty, students and the community. Transparency will allow the light of truth to shine brighter.