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Monday, May 7, 2012, 6:00 am

With state funding slimmer, SRJC’s Petaluma campus charts future

Upcoming address is part of broader outreach effort

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    PETALUMA – The Sonoma County Junior College District is charting a future for its recently expanded Petaluma Campus, considering strategies at a time when reductions to state funding have stymied plans to increase enrollment and kept attendance hovering at about half the facility’s capacity.

    Dr. L. Jane Saldana Talley

    In the weeks leading up to the first-ever “State of the Petaluma Campus” address, Dr. L. Jane Saldaña-Talley, vice president and executive dean of the campus, said that the future would include further outreach to market the 40-acre campus as a regional community asset and helping to expand awareness of its array of academic programs.

    “In the past, we’ve been focused on sheer growth. But I think we’re going to do some real strategic planning to figure out what the strengths of this place are,” she said.

    The third and final phase in the modern re-imagining of the campus was completed in 2009, capping 17 years of construction and tripling its capacity to approximately 12,000 students. Afforded largely by voter-approved Measure A bonds, the construction and renovation cost approximately $78 million.

    But while the campus had drawn a steadily increasing number of students since expansion began, the decrease in California’s funding for public education forced officials to cut the total number of class sections, effectively limiting enrollment. About 5,900 students currently attend 350 class sections in Petaluma, down from a high of 7,000 students and 550 sections in 2008, according to Dr. Saldaña-Talley.

    “Spring of 2009 was when the economy really slowed down. Then, all of our resources changed,” she said.

    While reductions to class offerings have had a similar impact on both the Petaluma and Santa Rosa Junior College campuses, officials said that the smaller enrollment at Petaluma – compared to the 19,265 currently attending 1,939 sections in Santa Rosa – is an asset that the college can market for students interested in the feel of a smaller college. Even at full capacity, the Petaluma campus would still be dwarfed by its larger partner to the north.

    Dr. Frank Chong

    “You have two distinct choices – you have a larger campus, with things like sports teams and theater, and then you have the Petaluma campus, with what I like to call ‘a smaller and more intimate experience,’” said Dr. Frank Chong, president of Santa Rosa Junior College and superintendent of the district.

    Like the Santa Rosa campus, Petaluma offers a number of associate degrees and transferrable units, and Dr. Saldaña-Talley said that the college plans to raise awareness that a student could spend their entire junior college experience at the site.

    Yet students are not the only target of the campus’s outreach efforts. Dr. Saldaña-Talley said that those efforts also extend to the community at large.

    Kerry Mahoney

    “Even though we have this fabulous and state-of-the-art campus, probably the majority of the community has never set foot on it,” said Kerry Mahoney-Davidson, a member of the Friends of Petaluma Campus Trust and daughter of former college board trustee and Petaluma campus advocate Herold Mahoney.

    Ms. Mahoney-Davidson said that State of the Campus address is part of a broader effort to increase awareness about the campus among community and business leaders at a time when limited funding makes it difficult to explore community programs outside of the school’s core academic mission.

    The site does draw a number of community members throughout the year during events like the annual cinema series and the recent lecture by journalist Belva Davis.

    Rendering of SRJC’s Petaluma campus

    Yet Dr. Chong said that there could be opportunities to expand the role of the college for the community in the future, including developing revenue generating continuing education classes that would be offered at a different pricing structure for non-students.

    “There might be a market for that in Petaluma. I think it’s a highly educated community, and they see the value of education,” said Dr. Chong, a Petaluma resident.

    With a district-wide master planning process beginning later this year, Dr. Chong said that there will be outreach to both the communities and area schools that feed into the two campuses, including efforts to determine the current desires for residents in the region of the Petaluma campus. That master plan will guide development over three years, versus the 10 years that is typical for such efforts.

    “The days of doing 10-year strategic plans are really in the past. Things move so fast now,” he said.

    Having presided over the campus since 2007, Dr. Saldaña-Talley said that she was optimistic about increasing the profile of the facilities, which currently draw a number of its students from northern Marin as well as Sonoma County.

    She said that the June 7 address “is a starting place. Each annual breakfast will be a chance for the community to come and learn more about the campus.”

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