Sierra College unveils 20-year plan

Outlook includes new science building, boost from state budget
By: Andrew Westrope, Staff Writer
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ROCKLIN – Sierra College gave community leaders a sneak peek at its 20-year plan at the college’s annual president’s breakfast on Wednesday, including tentative ideas for a new, $100 million science building.

In a presentation before 85 of the college’s partners in business, education and public office, President Willy Duncan summarized plans for new growth and development in the face of growing enrollment and an encouraging state budget proposal. It was the college’s first new 20-year plan in seven years, and even as a “very, very rough” draft, he said some of its provisions were already in progress.

Prior to 2013, Duncan said the college lost 18 percent of its revenue in five years. If approved, the budget revision proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown on May 14 would reverse this trend by adding an estimated $1.2 million to the college’s $77 million general fund budget, or enough staff hours to accommodate another 3,500 seats in class. Another funding bump in the governor’s proposed budget would give Sierra College up to $1 million to pay for increases in costs for contracts, operations, utilities and other variable expenses.

All this is crucial for the college, Duncan said, as Placer County is one of the only counties in the state projected to see an increase in K-12 graduates in the next few years.

“As the state budget has been reduced, we have not been able to accommodate all the students that have come our way,” he said. “I think it’s very positive for us to be talking about adding money back into community colleges rather than taking it out, and that’s what we’ve been talking about the last few years. What this is going to mean for us is that we can serve more students.”

Duncan said the college will partner with universities to streamline graduation requirements and match their curriculums, expand veteran services and eventually develop or lease its 72 acres of unused property as a fundraiser. But the centerpiece of its expansion will be a new science building, intended to double the college’s lab space and allow more sections of increasingly important science classes so students can graduate sooner.

Sierra College trustee Bill Halldin said the idea of a new science building could be as much as 10 years old, a product of the college’s ongoing attempt to improve as bridge between local K-12 schools and employers and four-year universities. Plans for the building project had failed to win the necessary state funding in the past, and plans are hypothetical until the state approves them, but Halldin has high hopes that a plan so long in the works is about to have its turn.

“That particular building has been in plans and development for many years,” he said. “It’s been in the queue for a long time, and it’s been presented in a way that it meets the state’s requirements well.”

The $100 million building would be funded through a statewide education construction bond, expected to be issued in 2014, with a $2 million match from Sierra College which has already been set aside. Duncan said if the education construction bond is approved in 2014, construction would begin in 2015 and take about two years. For Sierra College, the goal of the project is to become a better feeder school for nursing, engineering and other in-demand technology programs that could bring jobs to the area.

“If we’re going to grow our other programs, we’re going to need to support the community, and we’re going to need facilities to do it, and it’s an area that we really want to grow,” Duncan said.

He added that the cost estimate includes some equipment, but not enough to outfit the building entirely – that might take another $3 million to $5 million, for which he looks to the Sierra College Foundation.

Encouraged by the governor’s intention to increase community college funding, Foundation Executive Director Sonbol Aliabadi said her business office was still reviewing the proposal in its entirety. She said there would still be many expenses not covered by the college’s general fund, including equipment for the new science building, and the foundation would ease those with help from partners like Sutter Health, alumni groups, corporations, private donors, grants and other sources.

“It’s good news, but it still doesn’t cover everything that the college needs,” she said.

Another provision of the governor’s budget asks community colleges to adapt some of the responsibility for adult education, which currently falls to high school districts. Duncan said the governor had previously proposed shifting the entirety of that responsibility to community colleges, but the latest plan would be more agreeable to all concerned.

“For the next three years, community colleges and high schools would come together and study how best to provide adult ed services to the community, and then going forward, we would do it together,” he said. “I had an initial conversation with superintendents in our area after the January budget had been proposed, and we all agreed … that it doesn’t make sense to just rip it out of the high schools and move it to community colleges. But I think everybody would have a willingness to work together.”

The governor’s budget will have to be reconciled with the budgets of the senate and general assembly by a committee for approval by the governor by June 30, though Congress has occasionally failed to meet that deadline in the past. Sierra College will use the governor’s latest proposal to plan its 2013-14 budget, then schedule open forums for community input on its 20-year plan in the fall.