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Trustees hear pleas to save Sierra College vocational programs

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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ROCKLIN - With the very real prospect of losing Sierra College vocational agriculture, construction and auto programs to budget cuts, speakers were out in full force Tuesday to try to convince the school’s board to save them. An estimated 700 people packed the Dietrich Theater, noisily applauding as speaker after speaker addressed the board with comments centering around programs that are valued, even cherished, by many. One of the most emotional moments of the hearing came when cancer patient Mike Langford, who teaches building code classes and is in line to lose his job, compared his disease to the situation now being faced by the construction program. Langford, who had chemotherapy Monday, said that friends are surprised when they ask him how he is and he answers “Alive.” “You will recover,” Langford said. “You need to keep the programs alive. I hope and pray you will do that.” Langford, one of more than 50 speakers who stepped up to make their case to save programs, received a standing ovation from many in the audience. More speakers were lined up late Tuesday addressing the board and the Journal will have results in Thursday’s issue of a scheduled board vote later in the lengthy meeting. Steve Smith, automotive technology program department chairman, called on trustees to look for outside funding to keep it going. Smith, who faces losing his job July 1 after 22 years with the Sierra program, even volunteered to take a 25 percent salary reduction to help it survive. “You’re in a position where you have an outstanding facility that can continue for many years into the future,” Smith said. Several speakers in favor of keeping the agricultural program at the school running touched on the importance of agriculture in the county. Christine Turner, Placer County agriculture commissioner, called on the board to retain a program she said is in step with a national movement supporting agriculture and local farming activities. “Show these students and the community that this isn’t a done deal,” Turner said. Terry Cook, an Auburn resident and former Placer County supervisor, said the school should reduce the vocational programs on the chopping block but not cut them out. She suggested that the college would make a poor choice if it decided to sell vocational training equipment from the programs that would likely fetch “pennies on the dollar.” At the beginning of the sometimes emotional session, college President Leo Chavez had outlined the school’s attempt to come to grips with a projected $10.7 million funding shortfall in the 2010-11 fiscal year. Cuts now being planned for next year come on top of a $9.8 million shortfall this year that was partly balanced by a one-time-only $3.8 million infill from reserves, he said. Staff members could be pitching in with 5 percent salary reductions and six days of furloughs next year. Chavez said votes were taking place or being tabulated this week. But the school is holding fast on its position of not lowering reserves below 5 percent of the budget. In all, the college has plans to lay off 35 employees and Tuesday’s session was an attempt to put board guidance in place to send out notices well in advance of the targeted July 1 date to let employees go. “All of you are upset and rightly so – you’re receiving $1.5 million in program cuts,” Chavez said. Early budget projections estimate $87 million in spending next year, compared with $91 million this year and $97 million in 2008-09. “We’re in a tough spot at the college (because of state funding reductions),” Chavez said. “We’re out of acceptable choices and easy solutions. Now we’re trying to make the least-w