(UPDATED WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON with decision delay)
By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
At least a million dollars has to be sliced from the budget for South Seattle College (WSB sponsor), says its interim president, who has until tomorrow to decide whether to kill one of its signature programs to save some of that sum.
Just days ago, faculty and students in that program, Pastry and Baking Arts, were told it was on the chopping block. This afternoon, dozens of them crowded into the board room at SSC – along with culinary luminaries from around the region, including the founders of Bakery Nouveau, Macrina Bakery, and Essential Baking Company – to plead for it to be spared.
SSC interim president Peter Lortz and his cabinet gathered for the informal meeting that he described as “impromptu,” intended to “give everybody who wants to speak a chance to speak.”
In addition to singing the praises of the well-regarded, decades-old program, some speakers also decried the lack of notice that ending the program was a consideration.
Lortz explained the “program viability process” starting with discussion and data-gathering in the summer, moving through the academic year. Eight programs including this one went through “level two” of review for possible termination, he said. Seated next to him was vice president of instruction Laura Hopkins, who said she had recommended three programs for closure, including two whose faculty were “ready to retire” – auto body and engineering graphic/design. “We’re not the only community college faced with this horrible, horrible situation financially,” she said. “With the pastry program,” she said that low enrollment had been a problem “over a number of years” and that high cost and completion/retention rates, also were factors in her recommendation, which she said “had nothing to do with the quality of the program.”
Current students will have a “pathway to completion,” she promised, “if the chancellor does make the decision to close the program,” referring to Seattle Colleges Chancellor Shouan Pan, who would have the final say on whatever closure recommendations are forwarded by Lortz.
Then the people lining the room began to speak, and what was announced as an hour-long meeting ran more than twice that. First came the program’s chef instructors:
Chef Christopher Harris began by acknowledging students, alumni, industry supporters for coming to this unusual meeting. He said he wasn’t disputing declining enrollment in this kind of program, nor its costs “More than just dollars in, dollars out… we’re asking you to consider the intrinsic value of … a legacy program to the college (that’s) been around more than 40 years.” He said the program also would like the chance to implement “action plans” that could “turn around the trajectory” of the program. He asked supporters to pledge to help the program “so it will be there … in the future,” including for future students who hear “this really is the best program in the area.”
Chef Kimberly Smith followed: “I do think we have an opportunity … to capture a lot of students … in the 13th Year Promise Scholarship.” This year, 42 percent of eligible seniors have signed up – a dramatic increase – she said. 10 percent of 150 potential 13th Year students who visited the college a day earlier are interested in the program, she said. She also acknowledged that “up until now, maybe we’ve rested on our laurels … waited for the customers to come to us ….” but their action plan includes outreach. She described the program as confidence-building . “I have students and graduates that go to the highest level of our industry,” as well as people who fry donuts for supermarkets and can go to any store, fill any shift. Smith read a letter from a student who is pursuing a food-science degree, inspired by what she learned in the program. She wrote that she’s had multiple job offers, from employers who were impressed by her skills and her school, and has been able to mentor others. She said the South degree was a vital launching pad for her career and her future studies. “If you lose this program, you will be losing bright students – like me.”
Speakers who followed identified themselves as from local food businesses, most if not all employers of program graduates.
“It would be a devastating blow to our industry” if the program were closed, said a program graduate representing restaurateur Tom Douglas‘s local empire. “It would be just terrible.”
2016 graduate Bobbie Martin said she has found a successful new career thanks to her SSC education, after a 27-year career in the travel industry, adding that she is granddaughter of a career baker. She said students commute from many miles away to attend this program. It’s a “melting pot” of students, she said, whose heritages are from around the world; a student next to her, she noted, was from Iran. She also ticked off a long list of companies that employ program graduates. She also observed that students who had challenges including autism and ADHD “had all been welcomed into the Pastry and Baking Arts program.” Her grandmother, who died recently at 97, visited the program several times and told her, “You are where you are meant to be.” She said she was disturbed that the recommendation had been made without administration talking to students.
Brad Barth, a manager at Bakery Nouveau, talked about hiring for their new Burien location, and seeking employee candidates from this program first and foremost. He has several SSC graduates on staff right now. “To say that pastry professionals aren’t needed in the industry is absolutely false. … It just sickens me that you guys are so narrow-minded on what this program is … what skills it can offer. If Bakery Nouveau expands, if I’m looking for more employees, I’m looking to South Seattle.”
Leslie Mackie, the founder of Macrina Bakery, said she’s a graduate of a community college in Oregon: “I really believe in the power of community colleges.” She said that in the first few years of Macrina, after dealing with a lot of turnover, “we decided that … a criteria for employment would be” a background from an accredited pastry program.” She said the program “gives real-life experience.” The kiosk on campus does that. “It is so valuable. … Our recommendation is that we will do what we can to support the program. … The industry in general is changing, the restaurant business in general, and we need people who have a foundation in pastry.”
A chef for Seattle’s Facebook offices said they have a “humongous cafeteria for employees” – 2,500 people served daily. They have an eight-person pastry team, and still have two open positions. He said Facebook is looking to double its staff here, and double the culinary team too – “maybe some people in this room.”
Brandon LaVielle, president of the Washington State Chefs Association, owner of Lavish Roots Catering, and an SSC alum, said he thought the announcement of potential closure “was a late April Fool’s joke.” He added, “There aren’t enough pastry and baking programs in our area to begin with. … It’s hard enough to find staff with the school, let alone without it … The need for bakers and pastry chefs is at an all-time high … look at all the restaurants doing things from scratch these days.” What happens, he asked, when the economy picks up and they’re trying to reinstate the program?
Lisa Dupar of Pomegranate: “This is something very unique here at South Seattle … (SSC) graduates are industry-ready.” She said that the program’s reputation is stellar, and she too offered to help in any way she could – marketing the program, continuing to hire graduates.
George DePasquale, co-founder of Essential Baking Company, described himself as a 40-year baker, with 320+ employees: “The school is sitting in the middle of a gigantic labor pool that we really badly need.” The school needs to seek out those people – it has the training; companies like his have the jobs. He said news that the program was in jeopardy left him “shocked.” They’ve had dozens of SSC graduates over the years, he said. “They come to us already proficient in many of the skills” that their work requires. “Almost as important as the skills, they come to us already prepared for the atmosphere and demands of the lifestyle.” It is a lifestyle, not just a career, he said. “You give graduates the confidence and skills to see their own way …” to a promising future. “These people continue to revitalize the local culinary environment.”
He was followed by Bakery Nouveau founder William Leaman, who noted he has more than 150 employees in West Seattle, Capitol Hill, Burien. “There’s no doubt that this program kicks ass. Out of all the local community colleges that we get people from, it’s always been South that’s the best. … I think you don’t realize the quality, or what the potential could be, for the future.” He offered to help with marketing, with scholarships. “Don’t take our program from us!” He said all his managers, all his pastry chefs, “are South graduates.”
Another speaker said, “This feels like a marketing challenge.”
Lee Horswill from Brown Bear Baking on Orcas Island: “In this room combined you have the movers and shakers of the pastry world in Seattle and it’s just frickin’ awesome.” He agreed that it seems like a marketing challenge and they are willing to help. He would have hired more graduates “but they’re just not coming out fast enough.” Those he has “are amazing.”
The next speaker said the program is vital for Seattle to “continue to be a first-class city” – having to outsource this kind of education would not be right. “To lose something like that,” and inevitably to regret it – “once you lose it, it’s not going to come back in the right way … it’s not going to be a part of the community” the way it is now.
Leaders of SSC’s United Student Association spoke next: “You guys have our entire support – we’re here to represent our student body.” The program and its products are high quality. The problem is “are we just calling it quits?” USA officer Harkarn Bairns said, “Let’s not call it quits – let’s find out what we can do to sustain it.” The college is a family, he said.
A speaker describing herself as a long-ago student named other bakeries and said none of them compared. “It would be a shame to close this program down – what’s a culinary program if you don’t know how to bake?”
Faculty member Tim Walsh said he considers it an “ecosystem issue” with relationships between the various food and beverage programs – “changing one thing changes everything.” He said “it’s a hobby of mine to visit every bakery I can in town” and SSC’s remains at the top of his list, “a vital community resource … If the baking program leaves, I’d be very worried about the quality of bakeries all over the city.”
Another non-culinary faculty member, Tish Lopez, said she was speaking from the “campus perspective,” with SSC “on a hill … there’s not much around here,” especially in the way of food. “The bakery serves such an essential function.” She said she asked her 76 current students “what gives you joy” on campus – and more than 50 of them mentioned the baking program. Its affordability does make a big difference for many students. “If we’re trying to make South a place that feels like home, the bakery is such an essential component of that. … I can’t even imagine this campus without this program … it behooves us to see, what can we do to save this program?”
The next speaker drew laughter by saying he sees himself as its “top customer … I just believe as an educator that we learn by repetition … as a consumer, I know that many of my students consume the good stuff (the program) is producing,” but he also enjoys “see(ing) the students working there, the sense of professionalism that they are developing.” He too worries about the “domino effect” that the end of this program could cause.
He was the last signed up, but not the last speaker, it turned out. Lortz took a moment to say he would have to “struggle through the recommendation” made by Hopkins. “I appreciate immensely the outpouring of support, particularly from industry … I’m sad that it took this to get that display of support …” He also said the school “has not hit bottom” in its budget problems and needs to find “$1 million to $2 million out of next year’s budget.” Some of the problems that are manifesting now trace back many years, he added.
A student standing against the wall said she was a high-school dropout but has a young cousin who looks up to her and now wants to be a chef – not just because she is training to be a chef, but because “she wants to create things to make a better world for other people.” She said her training had helped her become “a better person” and “a better role model for my little cousin. … You realize you can do so much more to help this world,” and to spread the knowledge.
The next person who spoke said he didn’t even finish middle school but this is a career he can work toward.d he too was not just a high-school dropout but a middle-school dropout and this is a career he can work toward.
Can someone just write a check to save the program? Lortz was asked
Not that easy, said Lortz. “If we are not using state dollars … we can’t count the enrollment … we would then not be contributing to our FTE [full-time enrollment] goal and the state would not be contributing toward that.”
What if students were working with community leaders to generate revenue? That “could help with equipment and supplies,” said Lortz, “but not the cost of instruction.”
“How many bodies in the classrooms does it take to keep this program going?” one person asked. “We need to know, what do you need from us to maintain this program? … If we can get the bodies in here to make your numbers happen, how do we do that?”
Lortz prefaced his reply by saying that compared to other colleges, SSC spends more on instruction than on support (which includes marketing, etc.). The questioner pressed the point. Lortz continued, “The way the program is set up structurally, it is a high-cost program, even when full … South is in a difficult position (compared to others) because it has many high-cost programs” as well as many low- to no-cost programs. “I have to make decisions in general about the program mix of this college.”
Chef Smith said she and Chef Harris could work with more people. She said she also knows that the cabinet is having many tough conversations. “I firmly believe that the decision you have before you is an interim solution that might … provide a small amount of relief in your budget … but we might be able to use this to spark an opportunity to grow … the hard work starts now.” She said the program has been without a Technical Advisory Committee as it deals with the challenge of running a retail operation as well as an educational program. “I believe the time is now for our program not to fall, but to rise … and for all of us to imagine what we can be, together.” She said they didn’t get a chance to defend themselves, and that there are proposals to raise money in a variety of ways including raising lab fees. “We want to be part of the solution, not part of the problem.”
Various suggestions were offered by others, including allowing the college staff as a whole to “be creative.” Lortz also at one point before the meeting’s end declared that “Community colleges are ignored in Olympia,” saying SSC is “the canary in the coal mine … Washington does not fund its community colleges appropriately. … The problem is the underfunding overall.”
Whatever it is, program members and supporters said, they want a chance to help solve it. Chef Harris declared, “We were shorted … we were asked to make a proposal for getting out of this hole, and then we were told,” it wouldn’t even be considered, “this is what’s going to happen.” Ending it would be a “short-term fix,” but one that “creates more of this spiral effect. … This program is not just about providing cookies to the campus … this program is about getting people employed in the community … maybe it needs to be changed a little bit … but we want the opportunity to change it, not to be told … this is the end of it. … It kills me that we are in these situations when … for all these years I asked for financial data over and over and over again, and I’ve been told ‘you’re fine,’ but I’ve never been given access to financially manage our program the way I know I can.” He said that if he knew three years ago that trouble was looming, he could have done something. But “we really were shortchanged” by not having been given a chance. He said they weren’t told last year that they were going into “viability study” – if they had been, they would have gotten to work. “With all the money in this city,” there has to be a way to fund it.
“You gave me a lot more to think about,” Lortz responded.
What he doesn’t have is a lot more time. SSC says tomorrow is the deadline to forward the cut recommendation to the system chancellor, who in turn has just days for a final decision.
ADDED WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON: As noted briefly in comments, the SSC president requested and obtained a deadline extension. No firm date yet but “the decision will not be made this week,” according to the college’s communications director Ty Swenson.