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ROBERT PRICE: Pandemic hurt, but outgoing KCCD chancellor can hit fishing holes with a sense of accomplishment

The desktop computer is gone, the bookcase has been cleared of nearly all of its books and assorted objects of significance, and Tom Burke can’t even find a pen in his desk.

The chancellor of the Kern Community College District is in his final full week on the job, and moving day should be a snap. Burke, who has been either chief financial officer or chief executive of the three-college district for the past 20 years, appears to be already half-packed. He is a lame duck, so to speak, as opposed to one of the healthy ducks in the painting he has just reminded himself he must pluck from the wall on his way out the door.

The word “chancellor” conjures up burgundy capes and manicured hands clutching gilded scepters, but the only ornament grizzly-bearded Burke will want in his paws a few months from now is a fishing pole.

Sonya Christian, Ph.D. and president of Bakersfield College, takes over as chancellor on July 1. She inherits ultimate responsibility for the KCCD’s three campuses — Porterville College, Cerro Coso College and the flagship, her beloved BC — at a most challenging time.

Enrollment at colleges and universities is down nationwide, and no sector has been harder hit than community colleges. Some 476,000 students, or 65 percent, of the spring’s U.S. undergraduate enrollment losses happened at the community college level, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, which tracks higher education data. No state took a bigger hit, in numerical terms, than California, with an overall loss of 123,000 students. And California community colleges’ share of that drop comes on the heels of a 12 percent enrollment plunge between fall 2019 and fall 2020.

If Burke were the type, he might complain about the unfairness of it all. He might point out that, despite everything, he leaves Christian with some reassuring numbers.

When Burke took over as the district’s CFO in 2001, he says, the KCCD’s fiscal reserve was a dangerously low 5 percent of its annual operating budget.

“Which was problematic,” Burke said. “And so over the course of my time as the CFO and then continuing through as chancellor (starting in January 2017), we've built up our reserves significantly to become one of the top districts in the state in terms of reserves — roughly 50 percent.”

But operating revenue is largely tied to enrollment, and that’s not a pretty picture. Districtwide summer enrollment is down 6.7 percent from this time last year, which qualifies as the good news compared to this gut-punch: Fall enrollment, based on full-time equivalent students, is down 21.9 percent, representing about 4,087 students and a decline in class enrollments of 12,770. Not counting the sudden availability of desirable parking spaces, that has only negative repercussions.

“Fortunately the state has some protective mechanisms that will protect a district from significant revenue erosion due to enrollment declines for a couple of years,“ Burke said, noting too that the enrollment-based funding model has a transitional component that will also help ease the pain.

But community colleges need to get students back into classrooms and soon — that’s the bottom line.

To answer that question, the KCCD must first figure out why they’re quitting. And that’s not as simple as, “Duh, they’re sick of Zoom.”

“It’s not just a product of people not wanting to take classes online,” Burke said. “We’re studying it right now as part of how we think we can turn it around. We think part of it is also potentially — and this is speculation; our researchers are actually trying to validate this — that there's fear of coming back to in-person courses. And we believe that there's a population now that prefers to take online courses. So we're trying to essentially establish what we suspect: That there's been a paradigm change with our students.”

Just what Burke, and now Christian, needed. The role of community colleges had been evolving and expanding anyway. Then, of particular importance in energy-rich, energy-reliant Kern County, along comes a looming revolution in the way we power our cars, our homes and our industries, necessitating the development or expansion of certain academic and certificate programs. And now the students themselves are questioning how that knowledge should best be delivered.

One thing Burke, a Bay Area native and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo grad, has discovered about in person vs. virtual instruction: Some courses of study just don’t translate well to Zoom or other forms of distance learning. For starters, nursing — a large and important program that, in view of the Central Valley’s dire shortage of healthcare professionals, can and must continue to grow.

Health care, fortunately, is one of Christian’s priorities, but students will have to accept that they can’t complete those programs in their jammies.

If the new chancellor has questions about that or anything else on her lengthy list of must-dos, Burke will be at her disposal. He must surrender the glamorous office at Chester and 21st downtown, but he’ll be just down the hall: Burke will serve as deputy chancellor through Dec. 31, working with Christian and her staff to ease the transition and see certain tasks through to completion.

Then Burke, 63, and his wife Tina, a retired 30-year Kern County employee and the mother of their three grown children, will hit the road. Ireland is at the top of the list: He’s a second-generation Irish immigrant who still has relatives across the Atlantic. After that, a tour of U.S. national parks — “A great way, I’ve been told, to see the country,” Burke said. That’s when the fishing pole starts to get some real use.

He’ll take the duck painting with him when he departs but leave behind the faded, 1980s vintage couch for Christian — a district-owned heirloom that Burke’s thrifty predecessor, Sandra Serrano, saw fit to reupholster rather than replace. With enrollment down, Christian — a mathematician by academic training — will want to guard the district checkbook zealously, but office furniture, even in these times, seems like an appropriate investment. This is, after all, the office of a chancellor.

Editor's note: This column has been updated to correct the decline in enrollment figures.

Robert Price is a journalist for KGET-TV. His column appears here Sundays. Reach him at RobertPrice@KGET.com or via Twitter: @stubblebuzz. The opinions expressed are his own.

Coronavirus Cases widget

  • Positive Cases Among Kern Residents: 158,270

  • Deaths: 1,828

  • Recovered and Presumed Recovered Residents: 150,950 

  • Percentage of all cases that are unvaccinated: 92.04

  • Percentage of all hospitalizations that are unvaccinated: 92.62 Updated: 12/3/2021.

  • Source: Kern County Public Health Services Department