College Trustee Candidate Interview Questions

TOM DONNER




September 2006

  1. Why are you running for College Trustee?

    As SMC's Chief Business Officer for the past 30 years, I've spent my life working to make SMC one of the top community colleges in the nation. I'm now retired, and I want to use my expertise to help the District prepare for the challenges of the 21st century.
    I will also be able to bring much needed institutional memory and experience as the College moves forward.

  2. What has been your personal involvement with education in our community?

    I have been privileged to have experienced first-hand the development of the college since 1976. This has included the college's shift to state funding in 1979, becoming an independent body in 1982 with the election of the first separate Board of Trustees, becoming a State leader in UC transfers (this was first documented by the state beginning in 1989), recovering from the destruction of the 1994 earthquake, and being funded locally by two modernization programs, in 2002 and in 2004.

    My experience includes:
    SMC Chief Business Officer (1976-2006) – 30 years of balanced, on-time budgets, with responsibilities of District strategic financial planning, budget development, and allocation of District financial resources.
    • Served as District Interim President in 2005-2006 and 1994-1995.
    • Honored as Chief Business Officer of the Year by the National Association of College Business Officers.
    • Experienced member of California Community College committees addressing funding equalization, facilities' standards, accounting and audit guidelines, state budget formula, and student services funding increases for Partnership for Excellence.
    • I have also taught business and accounting courses from time to time.
    • My son Alex graduated this past spring from Malibu High (and is now a freshman at SMC) and also was at Roosevelt Elementary, and I have been involved both as a College official and as a parent with the School District on many different committees.

  3. What makes you stand out among the other candidates? What special attributes, talents, and abilities will you bring to the College Board?

    The retirement of three College Trustees this November is very unusual. Together, these Board members carry much of the modern history of SMC. Herb Roney has been Trustee for 12 years, and before that worked at the College (and before that worked at the School District and before that was a student at SMC!). Herb's service goes back as far as the original opening of the Main Campus in the early 1950s. Carole Currey is retiring after 27 years on the College Board. Her service dates back to when the College was still part of the School District in the late 1970s. Dorothy Ehrhart-Morrison, like Herb Roney, is also retiring after 12 years of service as a Trustee.
    Post-election, the longest serving member on the Board will be Margaret Quinones, with 6 years of service, followed by Nancy Greenstein, with 4 years, and then Rob Rader and Susan Aminoff, both with 2 years.
    Among the candidates, I am certainly the one with the most experience at SMC. Beyond that, I believe I bring a commitment to student success that is in keeping with the very high standards and values of our community. I am very, very proud that over the years, SMC has been able to hire the best faculty, with pay scales among the highest in California, and at the same time has been able to provide and sustain the highest level of student counseling and student support services in California.

  4. What do you feel is the number one challenge facing the College today?

    I believe the number one challenge is retaining the spirit and engagement of our staff and faculty. Today's world, with increased costs, with increased congestion, with increased competition, and with increased specialization, can sap spirits.
    I was thrilled by our Board's recent selection of Dr. Chui L. Tsang as SMC's new Superintendent/President. Not only did it mean that the cavalry had arrived, it has also set off a wonderful new wave of strategic planning, new experimentation in instruction made possible by new grants, and a heightened sense of mission.
    Issues of budget and parking have been and will be eternal, it seems. For me, the number one priority – always! – is student success.

  5. Do you fully support the agreement negotiated for the City of Santa Monica to provide funding to the Santa Monica Malibu School District? What was your role, if any, in crafting, supporting or negotiating this agreement?

    I am very grateful that the City of Santa Monica has extended this support to the Santa Monica Malibu School District and has done so voluntarily. As a community, we are in a fortunate position that one of our cities can provide this support. There are only a handful of cities in the State with the financial ability to make this commitment and we in turn should do everything we can to be supportive of the City of Santa Monica's needs and priorities.
    The decision to provide this level of support over a set number of years did not come easily for the City and at the time engendered much controversy. As a senior administrator of the College, I was one of many who publicly endorsed the concept of additional and permanent funding of the School District by the City of Santa Monica.
    As you recall, the SMC Board of Trustees adopted formal support of this funding concept in 2000.
    I mention this because part of our Board's insight at that same time was that the College too could bring resources to assist with City of Santa Monica and School District needs in the form of future collaborations and joint use partnerships.
    Just as I supported the City and School District agreement to provide K-12 funding, I have also strongly supported College efforts to keep its side of the bargain as well, by initiating and delivering on collaborations and partnerships. Question number eight below goes to the heart of this point.

  6. The College is facing a persistent structural operating deficit, with ongoing expenditures about $3,500,000 more than ongoing revenues. The College is using one-time funds this year to meet the shortfall. What will be your priorities over the long-term to address this issue?

    This structural deficit is indeed persistent. This particular cycle began in 2001-02, as a result of state funding cut-backs. (As past business manager, I can tell you that there have been at least three cycles of budget pull-backs before this, though this cycle has been one of the most difficult.)
    Balancing the need to continue to make program improvements against the reality of insufficient funding is a challenge faced by almost all school and community college districts in California today.
    The College's first priority should be to preserve student access. In practice, this means that every effort must be made to preserve jobs – the “business” of SMC is teaching and mentoring students and everyone is needed on board. SMC also in the past has had the capacity to add new revenue and catch up through growth.
    The words “catch up” in the last sentence are not just for alliteration. This actually implies a very specific strategy of using one-time funds to make up the operational deficit in a given year. SMC has used one-time revenues consistently since 2001-02 to meet its operating expenses. These revenues have come from reserves, from an advance of funds from the State for a Summer session, from stabilization (a type of debt forgiveness program provided by the State), and this year from some extraordinary one-time funds provided by the State.
    I am very pleased with the approach taken by Dr. Tsang. Dr. Tsang has brought in Mr. Michael Hill, one of the top business managers in the state and now retired, to review SMC's financial strategy going forward.
    Mr. Hill has helped identify to the Board of Trustees a three-year strategy to achieve operating stability that relies this year and next on the use of the one-time funds that SMC has in its reserves, with the goal to achieve full enrollment recovery in the third year, coinciding with the opening of classrooms now in construction and the expansion of online coursework.
    Mr. Hill has also helped identify a one-time “insurance policy” to use if additional time is needed to recover enrollment.
    There are many immediate term plans now in formation through the joint efforts of SMC staff and faculty to accelerate enrollment recovery. I wholeheartedly support these efforts. Without enrollment recovery, the alternative becomes downsizing, a very, very difficult process for any institution, especially one such as SMC that provides such hope and great benefit to so many.

  7. Recent changes adopted by the accrediting commission for California Community Colleges now require colleges to identify measurable student learning outcomes (SLOs) at the course, program, and institutional level. This is a large and time-intensive process. What role should the Board of Trustees play in approving and adopting SLOs at the program and institutional level?

    Student learning outcomes specify an anticipated course, program, or institutional outcome for the student. Motivating the adoption of SLOs is an understanding that different students have different ways of learning.
    SOLs at the program and institutional level are much more general in character than the course SLOs. The Trustees work with the President in open session in reviewing the College president's SLO recommendations at the program and institutional level with the College's vision and mission in mind. There should be a logical flow among the ideals. The Trustees in their role as policy setters take responsibility that the SLOs of the institution are fulfilling the vision and mission of the College.
    The recommendations that are brought forward to the Board are the product of extensive work by the Academic Senate and the academic administrators in collaborative efforts to bring together SLOs developed at the course and department level. In some cases Board Policy may require the District Planning and Advisory Committee to make recommendations to the President which are then presented to the Trustees for further review.

  8. The College has a number of joint projects underway with local agencies, including a project with the School District to construct new playing fields at John Adams Middle School, a project with the City of Santa Monica to construct and operate a new Child Development Lab School at the Civic Center, a joint powers authority with the City of Malibu to build a new college campus and to meet wastewater management goals, and a proposed project with the City of Santa Monica and the YWCA to build support housing. Do you believe the College is doing enough with other agencies or not enough with other agencies? What additional areas of cooperation, if any, should the College engage in?

    All of the above projects are a reflection of decisions on the part of the Board of Trustees in recent years to have the College turn its face “outward” into the community. In wrestling with the persistently difficult budget choices, the Board has developed an exceptionally mature understanding that its strength flows from its embrace of and service to community.

    There are many future partnerships to form. SMC is in active discussions with community health care partners to develop training and intern programs. SMC is in active discussion with the City of Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus to link SMC's shuttle system into a community transportation strategy under development by Big Blue Bus. Today's youth starts with a 100% commitment to sustainability. SMC is an ideal partner with other agencies to provide model projects and programs and ongoing instruction.
    This year, SMC began operating a Small Business Development Center in space donated by the City of Santa Monica. There are only 38 SBDC's in all of the State of California! This partnership provides immediate help for local businesses and improves the local economy. This partnership has great potential to bring new energy to SMC in the form of new vocational programs and training.
    In the area of arts and culture, there are equally exciting future opportunities as the School District, the College, and the City of Santa Monica all develop programming and cultural uses for Barnum Hall, the Madison Theater, and the Civic Auditorium respectively.
    There is much more to add to the list. Certainly, providing a high school on a college campus has great merit, and as such a proposal is reviewed and shaped by our School District and College academic processes, I would personally hope to see additional instructional and mentoring programs with John Adams Middle School as part of such a proposal.

  9. Do you endorse Measure BB, the Santa Monica-Malibu School Safety and Repair (Bond) Measure on the November 7, 2006 ballot and will you actively campaign for its passage?

    Yes, most emphatically. I am a member of a group of local residents and business leaders working to pass this bond measure.

  10. What is a priority concern you might have regarding the College that has not been raised?

    On the educational front, SMC is grappling with how best to meet the needs of students underprepared for College coursework. I believe we have the right administration and the right faculty in place to work on this issue and I promise my strongest support in this area.
    Also, especially in Santa Monica, the high cost of land adds to the challenge of the workforce to live near the College, and has an impact on students as the College has recently lost some ability to provide sufficient low-cost parking to students. Again, preserving student access is SMC's number one priority in my belief. Every counselor at SMC can tell you about the juggling act that today's students must perform between work, family, and school, often without sufficient resources. Every counselor will also tell you that low-cost parking preserves student access.



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