Two candidates for the Nov. 6 election to represent Indian Valley, Area 4, on the Feather River College Board of Trustees faced off Oct. 9 at a community forum in Quincy sponsored by the Plumas County League of Women Voters. Though they run from a particular area, voting is at large in the county.
Incumbent FRC Trustee Guy McNett of Indian Falls fielded a range of timely questions about college issues alongside his challenger for the post, Margaret Elysia Garcia of Greenville. Plumas County Supervisor Lori Simpson, president of the local league group, moderated the discussion forum.
Following brief opening statements that outlined their qualifications, education and career experiences, the candidates alternated turns to address questions from the audience of approximately 25 voters.
What do you consider to be the most important function of a college board trustee?
Garcia, a 16-year resident of Plumas County, was an FRC English instructor from 2003 to 2015. She said she thinks it is “gravely important that the board is independent of the college president.”
Describing this as an issue close to her heart and why she is running for office, she said, “When you teach in a community and are friends with students in the community, you get a good sense of what is good for the community and what needs work. Three things I think need work are more transparency on the board, more accountability and an independent voice on the board.”
McNett responded that the first priority is a fiduciary responsibility to the board, to the organization.
“That’s critical. If there isn’t any money, it doesn’t work,” he said.
The second was to provide oversight of the whole organization because there is so much going on at FRC in terms of academic matters, financial, interpersonal and legal issues, facilities management and more.
“There’s a huge amount that goes on,” McNett explained. “And one of the most important things for a trustee to do is to try and understand as much about those different components of the system as possible so that when they go to make a decision, it’s in the best interest of the whole. And that takes time, it takes commitment to be able to do that.”
What solutions do you have to solve the college’s housing problem?
McNett said, “Oh boy. Housing, folks, is one thing we’ve been wrestling with for a long time and it’s not just unique to Quincy, it’s unique to our whole county.”
He has served on the college board for the past six years and told the audience that FRC built dormitories some time ago to house 160 students, then bought an apartment building on Bucks Lake Road that houses another 30.
“Obviously, that’s why we went and bought the long-term-care, assisted-living facility behind Safeway and remodeled that for 55 students,” McNett added, clarifying that a huge hurdle for FRC is a lack of designated money in the community college system for housing.
“We are one of only seven schools out of 114 who actually offer housing,” he said
Garcia responded that the student-housing problem goes beyond funding issues.
“One of the very distressing things that I hear over and over again from students is (that they perceive) discrimination in housing,” she said. “That’s been a huge issue here in Quincy. I feel like if there was some way for the college to get down from the hill and integrate a little more with the community at large, in trying to partner with people here in the city and other outlying areas, we would fare far better and our students would fare better.”
Garcia added that she knows students who have left the college over housing issues and concerns.
Please review your experience on boards and administrative teams having to do with community colleges.
Garcia said she has taught college-level English and writing classes since 1998, has extensive experience with California’s Community College system, and has served on committees that covered hiring and diversity. She also served on the Sierra-Plumas Literacy Board, the California Acceleration project, a leadership team that worked on remedial education issues, and currently runs the micro-theater company, Pachuca Productions, that she cofounded in Plumas County.
“I try to be fiscally conservative when I’m running these groups,” she said. “Normally, everything I do is on a shoestring, so I’m used to that. I think the one where I was most effective was on the associate adjunct leadership team (at FRC). We were critical in the contract renegotiation year and were at least able to put back some of the things that were taken away from us. I take great pride in having rewritten part of the contract that went through.”
McNett has lived in Plumas County for more than 40 years. In addition to serving on the FRC Board of Trustees where he is currently vice president, he has been involved in local healthcare districts for 10 years and was instrumental in the Plumas Unified School District’s evaluation process that kept Greenville High School open.
“FRC is a very complex system,” he said. “There’s a lot going on out there. You have to be able to communicate effectively and listen well to people to find out their viewpoints and concerns. Maybe there’s something going on with facilities and they’re just hammered, or with housing, for example. It hurts when people say we’re not doing enough for housing. Well guys, we’re doing everything we can.”
He summarized the responsibilities of serving as a trustee by emphasizing the wide range of issues that come before the board and said, “There might be things in the financial area (that you have to look at and oversee), and we’re always dealing with legal situations that the college, as a whole, has to deal with. And that means you’d better do your homework.”
(For Ms. Garcia) Please point out decisions made by Mr. McNett that you believe were mistakes?
This question offered an opportunity for a moment of levity in the information-packed forum.
Garcia said, “Well, that’s pretty loaded.”
McNett joked, “Yeah, where to start?”
Garcia replied that her frustration “really comes from the lack of transparency and the lack of accountability as an independent voice for our area. That’s what prompted me to run in the first place.”
She also expressed concern about the departure of high-quality former FRC instructors and about board decisions on resources.
“Some of our amazing faculty are now gone and they’re gone as a direct result of board decisions,” she said, offering some examples. “I really wish my kids could take math from Dr. Michael Bagley (who left FRC last summer for another institution).”
Referring to the lean years of the Great Recession, when she was with the FRC English department, Garcia said, “In 2006, all of the departments had to give up something as a result of the budget crisis. And it’s very telling to me that some things the board decided were OK to bring back and some things were not. Today, there’s a brand new, gorgeous sand volleyball field that only serves a tiny amount of students when other things they voted on could have served a large number of students.”
McNett disagreed strongly, saying, “The reason somebody leaves employment is not necessarily because of a decision that I’ve made. Perhaps they have an opportunity that’s greater than the one they have at Feather River College.”
He also spoke about the board’s sole responsibility for approving or denying tenure and added, “I don’t think it’s fair to blame on decisions of the board why somebody seeks employment somewhere else. We offer an excellent compensation package.”
What percentage of FRC students are from Plumas County and what is the college doing to increase that?
Garcia took this question and said she believed the college is “doing nothing right now to increase enrollment of students available in Plumas County.”
She said local students have told her they are “making the trek to Butte, Lassen or Truckee Meadows three times a week, which all of us can attest to that these are not fun drives in winter. But they’re doing it because they cannot find classes that suit their needs to take on campus. And these aren’t esoteric classes. These are math classes, English classes, these are basics that they’re traveling to other places for.”
McNett said he thinks FRC does an excellent job of recruiting local students from throughout the county.
“We have 202 first-year California students at FRC so far this year and of those, 66 are from Plumas County. That’s an exceptional number; it used to be that we had trouble recruiting people to come to Plumas County and go to FRC. I don’t believe that’s the case anymore.”
McNett cited extensive outreach efforts by the college to all communities countywide.
McNett explained that “embedded” programs and services with outreach specialist counselors, like the Outward Bound program, help the college to contact students and show them what FRC has to offer. He added, “We are reaching out to those kids. They need all the help they can get and they’re getting it from FRC.”
What do you consider to be your major contributions to the FRC Board of Trustees?
As the incumbent, McNett talked about his commitment to Plumas County and said, “I spent 30 years in the mill up in Chester and I have a bachelor of science degree in industrial engineering. I think those qualifications help me in working with the board. I have a different perspective than say, somebody who has a doctorate in education. I’m an approachable person. People will sit down with me, and if we disagree, we’ll talk about the situation and how we might approach that.”
He mentioned his strong feelings about the college, various programs he is committed to both within and outside of the athletic departments, and talked about what FRC contributes to the community.
“We have over 300 student athletes out there,” he explained. “I’ve made it really clear on the board that as long as our emphasis continues to be on the “student” part of our student-athletes that they’ll have my support. So we are emphasizing the importance of these students getting their education. Last spring, we had 160 student-athletes who were recognized for earning over 3.0 GPAs. I’m proud to be part of a school that does that.”
If elected, what do you consider will be your major contribution to the FRC Board?
Challenging McNett for the Area 4 trustee’ seat, Garcia said, “I think first and foremost, my experience with community colleges lends me to say the following. I would love to see a great integration of students, teachers and staff all working with dignity and respect. If my legacy was part of bringing that to the college, that would be wonderful.”
She also focused on one of her top issues about bringing accountability and transparency to the board.
“It is so vital in our institutions that the president of a college and the board have some checks and balances on each other,” Garcia explained. “I also want to work diligently on the housing crisis for the students. I haven’t worked there for three years and I still get calls from the students — whether it be for letters of recommendation or calls for support saying they can’t take it and they have to leave, ‘Thank you for helping me stay longer.’ I want to make it so those calls of desperation no longer happen.”
At that point in the forum, Supervisor Simpson asked Garcia, “So Margaret, you had something about the president of the college making a power grab. Can you explain what you were concerned about?”
Garcia replied by explaining her understanding of recent efforts by FRC President Dr. Kevin Trutna to bring a procedural issue before the board of trustees for a policy vote.
“He was not able to get this passed in the academic senate (it was actually the FRC Classified Senate, not the Academic Senate that opposed changes to BP 2430) and would like to make it so that the public can no longer bring things directly to the board,” Garcia said. “I find it really disturbing … colleges only work if there is consensus, if classified staff have a voice, if teachers have a voice, if students have a voice and the board does. There is a collective of voices (to be heard) and that’s how big decisions are supposed to be made. I want us all as community members, who may or may not take classes, to be able to bring things to the board.”
McNett responded, “I’m sorry folks, this is misinformation. Our board policies are based on the Education Code. If it has something to do with and is germane to the operation of the college, then it can come before the board as an agenda item. There’s a process it has to go through. Anybody at the beginning (of the board meetings) can make a public comment.”
The process requires a written justification for denying access, McNett said, which allows the trustees to overturn that denial if they so choose.
“So, we’re not talking about a power grab at all,” McNett stated. “That authority does not rest totally with the president of the college. Actually, the bottom line is with the board. So it’s not a case of unilaterally deciding what’s going to be heard and what’s not going to be heard. It’s simply not true and not the case.”
Offered a moment to rebut, Garcia said, “It absolutely is the case. The academic senate would not have fought this so hard if they did not think it was important to fight. And I agree with Guy in one respect that the board and the president are separate. But if you have a board that only votes behind whatever the president says, then you don’t have that separation. That’s what’s concerning me, that currently there is no separation.”
McNett then discussed the FRC governance structure with 24 separate committees that debate issues in their particular areas, eventually moving issues to the president’s cabinet for a recommendation to the board.
“So it’s not as though there isn’t transparency there,” he said. “You’ve had people who were involved in that process all the way through. Now you might not have all those people in agreement, but it’s still up to the board to make a decision.”
Over the years, sports have increased versus core academics. Do you see that as a problem or is it balanced enough?
Garcia said she did not think sports are detrimental to FRC and the success of each program has to do with the coaches working with instructional staff and how well they promote academics. She said that when coaches instill academic standards, students do well in their classes.
“I would like to see a unified approach to student-athlete education,” Garcia noted and touched upon issues related to remedial education (for all groups of students). “This is at the expense of higher-achieving students who leave to take higher-level courses that are not offered at the college.”
McNett said the California Community College system has begun cutting back significantly on remedial programs, so there aren’t as many remedial math and English classes anymore, but cautioned the public to remember that community colleges have an open enrollment system.
“Not every student arrives prepared for the level of work, but we still have to serve all of our students,” he said and added that FRC’s mission includes raising students’ skills to be able to do college-level work.
“I’d like to add that we have to be able to continue to draw people into our area and sports is an important part of that,” McNett also said. “We had a pitcher who got picked up by the Cleveland Indians. He got his start at FRC, though that’s an anomaly. But for instance, volleyball players go on and get scholarships to four-year schools so the sport is a way they can continue their education and do something fun. As long as we continue to stay focused on the student part of our student-athletes, and have 160 kids earning 3.0 GPAs or higher, we’ll do just fine.”