One of the first things on my agenda after deciding to run for the LCC Board in 2007 was to seek out some advice from Dale Parnell, Lane’s founding president.
I had never met Dale Parnell personally, but I did interview him by phone in 1997 for a book published the next year that celebrated the Centennial of Springfield High School. Parnell was a former principal of that school where I spent 28 years of my teaching career.
I was impressed with Parnell’s legacy, which included not just founding LCC, but also included his time as executive director of the American Association of Community Colleges, two terms as Oregon’s Superintendent of Public Instruction and as superintendent of Lane County’s education service district. His advice was worth seeking.
We met at a coffee shop in Salem where he had been living since his retirement. The one bit of advice that has stuck with me through the next eight years was significant.
“Everyday you must be promoting Lane Community College.” Dale Parnell
Parnell’s advice still rings true today.
That was the mantra that enabled him to find success wherever he was. After leaving LCC to become Oregon’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction, he found himself on the national stage daily, promoting all of the nation’s community colleges.
In my small way I have tried to follow his example. During my tenure as a board member, residents would usually find me wearing a shirt, hat or jacket with the Lane logo emblazoned somewhere. That would often prompt a conversation, a question or a response. Usually it was a positive response from a former or current student. It made me proud to be a part of that.
The need to follow Parnell’s advice came into clear focus during my first year on the board.
In 2006, LCC had tried to pass a conservative $1.3 million local option levy that lost miserably at the polls. The post-election headline in the Register Guard said, “Levy loss puzzles advocates of LCC. Backers admit not promoting enough to public.”
Strangely, at the same time, LCC was putting the finishing touches on its new Health and Wellness Building, a project aided significantly through fundraising efforts of the LCC Foundation and the Lane community.
Board members were puzzled because they knew LCC was well respected in the community. But somewhere, there was a disconnect, and then it was time to renew an expiring bond levy. How could voters be convinced of the need to re-invest multi-millions in their community college in 2008 after saying “no” to such a modest request in 2006?
At LCC, it was agreed it was time to reconnect with our community to explain the need for infrastructure maintenance and modernization. The initial plan was to engage in a series of board-hosted “Community Conversations” and other informational measures to teach community members of the college’s need to attend to failing infrastructure that hadn’t been addressed since the original construction of the college facilities in the 1960s..
Working together with staff, faculty, administration and community leaders, with a renewed sense of concern, voters approved an $83 million bond levy just as the national economy was collapsing.
Adding to the chaos, refugees from one of the nation’s worst recessions found refuge at LCC. With high unemployment, residents found it a good time to consider retraining and re-education, resulting in a dramatic 45 percent enrollment surge. Classes filled, parking lots filled, but we all coped together to meet this new challenge.
Unfortunately, as state funds diminished as a result of the recession, the straining budget was balanced on the backs of students through increased tuition. Nobody thought that was a sustainable solution.
And then, as if things weren’t challenging enough, state officials decided to impose some intriguing “accountability” measures in the form of achievement compacts and restructured the state education system.
The Governor became the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, an Oregon Education Investment Board was created and higher education was being placed under the authority of a newly-formed Higher Education Coordinating Commission. Oregon’s entire education system was being reorganized.
While trying to understand and deal with the changes at the state level, we all had to deal with our infrastructure challenges locally.
With voters’ overwhelming approval of a renewed bond levy, we looked more closely at the details for renovating LCC with the newly granted monies. One of the focal points was how to attend to our aging Downtown Center housed in the 75-year-old Montgomery Ward building in the center of Eugene. The bond proposal allowed for $9 million to fix and upgrade the old building, but then it would still be an old building.
This was when I learned the true magnitude of the leadership skills of Lane’s president Mary Spilde. Almost singlehandedly, she grew a $9 million allocation for the old Downtown Center into a $53.4 million project that resulted in a state-of-the-art new downtown campus that included an entrepreneurial housing unit.
Using her prominence and connections, she was able to attract local, state and federal funds to build LCC’s new Downtown Campus while also overseeing the multiple projects on the main campus approved with the bond money.
Considering the times, it was a monumental accomplishment, not only for LCC, but for the city of Eugene. LCC’s new downtown project during a major recession was a significant catalyst in the reinvigoration of a sluggish Eugene. The past eight years have been marked with significant successes during trying times.
Many more challenges continue to loom. Statewide investment in education has placed Oregon in the bottom five states in per-student allocation of support. Oregon’s high school graduation rate was recently cited as dead last among the rest of the nation’s states.
To resolve these complex issues we will all need to join forces to reconnect with our voters to convince them of the need to address the disinvestment in a way that will allow Oregon education to return to its once shining status as a leader among other states. At Lane, we know how to do it. On a statewide scale the challenge is even greater.
With everyone daily promoting the qualities and benefits of Lane Community College, we can make progress.
Faculties, staffs, administrators and community leaders from across the state will need to work together with other colleges and education agencies to promote quality education for all Oregonians if we hope to break this system that is a disservice to our youth and future workforce.