Merced County education in 2009: Mixed bag of positives, negatives

First lady's visit brought exposure to UC Merced, but budget cuts impacted elementary to university levels.

December 29, 2009 

News from the education sector in Merced was a mixed backpack for 2009. While schools faced dire cuts in state funding and a turnover in leadership, recognition for UC Merced's first full graduation class and medical school plans inspired hope for the future.

The top education stories in Merced County for 2009 are:

1. Michelle Obama visits UC Merced

When students at UC Merced started writing Valentine's Day cards to Michelle Obama in early February, their wish for a White House commencement speaker might have seemed like a long shot. But they were determined.

Some 900 personalized cards later, the first lady confirmed on March 27 that she would speak at the graduation ceremony for the university's first full undergraduate class.

Before the confirmation, the attempt to woo the first lady morphed into a full-blown campaign, dubbed "Dear Michelle."

Students also created a YouTube video, planned to break world records in Mrs. Obama's honor and reached out to Charles Ogletree, a native Mercedian and Harvard law professor who had mentored both Obamas. The Merced City Council passed a proclamation to throw its support behind the student organizers, and then-Councilman Bill Spriggs asked Sen. Dianne Feinstein to support the students' cause.

The students' will was quickly recognized before the world record attempts could materialize.

On May 16, Michelle Obama took the stage at UC Merced's class of 2009 commencement ceremony before 511 graduates and 12,000 guests, despite sweltering heat.

Obama's 17-minute message focused on innovation, service to others and perseverance.

"You will face tough times, you will certainly have doubts. And you will definitely have your share of setbacks. Count on it," Obama said. "But in those moments, those inevitable moments, I urge you to think about this day."

All told, the event cost the university $1,047,338.82.

Private contributions of more than $185,000 (including donations and free labor) added to $500,000 in unrestricted interest earnings on a private endowment fund, managed by the UC Office of the President, helped offset the cost of the event, which was budgeted for $100,000 before Obama confirmed.

The balance was covered by nonstate dollars from campus sources, officials said.

2. Cuts to education spending Nearly every school board meeting, parent-teacher gathering and election pitch in 2009 was dominated by one topic: state school funding -- more precisely, a lack of it.

The California Teachers Association said in March that more than 25,000 teachers were expected to be issued pink slips this year because of an $11.6 billion cut in education from the California state budget. Many local districts had to consider drastic cuts just to keep the doors open.

In June, the Atwater Elementary School District passed a 2009-2010 budget with the plan to deficit-spend over the next few years, dwindling a $1.7 million general fund balance in 2009-2010 to $66,293 in 2011-2012. Over the winter months, the district cut 54 jobs, decreased health care benefit eligibility, eliminated deferred maintenance funding and made cuts to several other areas, including student transportation.

The Merced City School District's final budget for this fiscal year also called for deficit spending. The $81.3 million budget represents a significant cut from the $91 million the district spent last year.

Through the end of the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the district will continue to deficit-spend, before posting a gain in the ending fund balance in 2011-2012. The cuts in the budget included a decrease in 25 full-time teaching positions, four administrative positions, 5.5 classified employee positions, funding for Camp Green Meadows and a change in class-size reduction programs to add more students to each classroom.

Merced College announced the layoff of 15 employees in October, leaving student services offices there in want of warm bodies. The college also announced a fee increase -- from $20 a unit to $26, as the result of a state decision -- in August and slashed 120 course offerings for the fall semester.

UC Merced fared little better, as the 10-campus UC system spiraled into economic uncertainty as well. Some professors at UC San Diego went so far as to suggest the Merced campus should be shuttered as a cost-cutting measure. Such a closure didn't materialize (both Chancellor Steve Kang and the University Office of the President dismissed the suggestion), but the UC system did lay off hundreds of workers and force most of their 180,000 employees to take furloughs and pay cuts of up to 10 percent. In November, the University of California Regents approved a two-step 32 percent increase in student fees, set to begin this winter.

3. Changes in leadership

In February, the Merced City School District board promoted RoseMary Parga-Duran and Greg Spicer. Parga-Duran was formerly the associate superintendent for educational services, and Spicer was formerly the assistant superintendent of personnel services. Each moved up one spot in the district organizational chart as a result of Terry Brace's resignation.

The two administrators took the "promotions" without accepting an increase in pay; and the district remained on the hook for Brace's salary and benefits through June 30, according to a resignation agreement.

Merced College opened hiring for four new dean positions at the campus, the result of a restructuring program that added several academic administrators and was developed to oversee faculty members and provide more administrative authority, college President Ben Duran said. In July, the college hired a new vice president for administrative services, Mazie Brewington, to replace Larry Johnson who had held the spot for 15 years before retiring.

4. Groundwork for a medical school

In February, University of California President Mark Yudof said planning for a medical school at UC Merced should move forward "as quickly as is reasonable" at a Board of Regents meeting in San Francisco.

Yudof said he agreed with suggestions in a report from the Washington Advisory Group, a consulting firm, which suggested a phased process for opening a medical school in Merced by 2020.

"The health needs of the San Joaquin Valley are great," Yudof said then. "A step-wise approach to development of a medical education and research program at UC Merced will give us the best chance of developing programs of the level of quality required to address those health needs in a meaningful way."

The first step in the process would establish an undergraduate program in biomedical education at UC Merced. That got the OK in September when officials at the school announced a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to establish the Center of Excellence for the Study of Health Disparities in Rural and Ethnic Underserved Populations.

In phase two, UC Merced would start out as a "branch campus" in conjunction with the UC Davis School of Medicine. This could happen as soon as 2012, as long as other key milestones are met.

In the third and final stage, UC Merced would establish a fully independent medical school after functioning as a successful branch campus for a period of time.

Reporter Danielle E. Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2407 or dgaines@mercedsun-star.com.

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