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Endorsement: Jeff Kunde for SRJC board of trustees

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When asked to name a common misconception Sonoma County residents have about the Santa Rosa Junior College Board of Trustees, candidate John Kelly quips: “That it exists.”

Kelly is challenging incumbent trustee Jeff Kunde for the Sonoma Valley voting district’s seat on the SRJC board that operates largely off the radar of the average county voter. Even Kunde concedes: “The general public does not know who we are or what we do.”

But perhaps they should. The SRJC board of trustees is comprised of seven elected members from the county’s seven electoral districts – they compose the governing body that guides the direction of the 24,000-student community college as it enters its second century offering advanced education to North Bay residents. Roughly 50 percent of county high school graduates enroll in Santa Rosa Junior College and about 80 percent of its transfer students are accepted to a four-year university, according to SRJC officials.

So whether you’re a graduating high school senior, a single parent hoping to see your kids through college, or an adult enrolling to pursue a second career – the folks steering Sonoma’s community college ship should matter plenty.

If there were such thing as an SRJC hat trick, Jeff Kunde would have pulled it off: He attended the junior college, he’s taught at it, and he is now seeking his fourth term as trustee since winning a seat on the board in 2006. Heck, he even says all three of his now-grown kids have attended the JC. The Mendocino Avenue campus has certainly played a big role in the lives of the Kundes (yes, they of Kunde Family Winery).

In his 12 years on the board, Kunde cites multiple accomplishments in which he’s played a part, including, he says, hiring capable teams of senior executives and deans (and current President Frank Chong), implementing the $410 million Measure H bond program for tech and facility upgrades and advocating for increased educational services in the Sonoma Valley.

Much of that Measure H bond money, he says, went toward modernizing the campus’s Burbank Theatre, its athletic facilities, constructing a new STEM building and upgrading the college’s computers and technology.

“And despite the devastating October 2017 wildfires,” says Kunde, “in 2018 SRJC granted the largest number of degrees in its 100-year history.”

Kunde is particularly proud of helping support the Wine Studies program and the SRJC Shone Farm, which has now developed vineyards that produce and sell more than $1 million in grapes per year to support the farm’s operations.

If he wins a fourth term, Kunde says he would continue to lobby the state legislature for additional fire-relief funding (they’ve already secured three years’ worth), further the JC’s efforts to diversify its workforce and ensure low-income students access to the “financial aid and support services they need to persist and succeed.”

“A great community college serves the needs of the people in the district,” Kunde told the Index-Tribune. “I believe in continuous improvement and to change with the needs of the people and education.”

John Kelly is challenging the incumbent for his Sonoma Valley seat on the SRJC board in order to help the junior college “adapt to a rapidly shifting (workforce) landscape.”

“We are looking at major workforce transitions happening in a very short period of time,” says Kelly. “And that may really be the ‘new normal.’”

If Kelly, 43, wins the seat, he would have to count himself among that “rapidly shifting” workforce.

That’s because Kelly is already currently a trustee with the Sonoma Valley Unified School District. But if he wins the SRJC race he’d have to give up his school board seat due to a state law prohibiting one person simultaneously holding two elected offices whose functions overlap.

Kelly told the Index-Tribune that with the district “working hard to right the ship” in recent years, SVUSD “is now on the right path.” He said that if he wins the junior college trustee seat, he will resign from the school board.

If that happens, Kelly says he would bring a long-view approach to the junior college, urging the board to be “proactive in understanding student needs – what skills our business community will need in five, 10, 15 years.”

“Even just a couple of decades ago a person set out on a career path, learned skills and achieved degrees and they were set,” says Kelly. “But that’s not how careers flow now.”

If elected, Kelly says he would prioritize the financial stability of the college – “we need to ensure our college is sustainable in the long run financially. Everything stems from that” – and to address declining enrollment.

“We need to more effectively communicate with Sonoma County residents about what we offer – a remarkably high quality of education at a very affordable price,” says Kelly.

As affordable as it is, he’d go further. “I favor free community college for all students,” said Kelly, explaining that he’d lobby state and federal officials to increase funding to community colleges.

“I see amazing opportunity ahead,” says Kelly, “and community colleges in general are posed to be more responsive, flexible and adaptable than larger institutions.”

Kelly says he’s running “because it’s important that our college always be a place that affords everyone an equal chance at dignity and purpose.”

Both Kunde and Kelly have a strong sense of the importance of community colleges – especially in a Bay Area where a path toward a four-year degree is almost a prerequisite for the type of employment opportunities that allow young people to afford to stay in the area in the first place.

We especially appreciate Kelly’s recognition that the very concepts of employment, the workplace and the skills needed to thrive have changed dramatically in the last 20 years, and will change dramatically in the next.

Kelly has been on the Sonoma Valley Unified School District board for less than two years – and his tenure has seen some seriously rocky patches. Multiple senior administrators left the district within a year of his joining the board, partially citing as a factor Kelly’s allegedly bullying behavior. A year ago, Kelly had to publicly apologize to the district’s former Director of Curriculum, Karla Conroy, following her filing a hostile work environment complaint against him. Following the resignation of well-regarded district Superintendent Louann Carlomagno, former UCLA Chancellor Chuck Young insinuated a recall might be in order if Kelly didn’t curb his ways.

This year’s been calmer for the board, and Kelly’s now more collaborative behavior has been a big part of that. (So has the fact that the interim district superintendent last year was Young, to whom Kelly has been largely deferential.)

But we’d prefer to see how a full term plays out for Kelly before looking beyond SVUSD.

Kunde’s experience at the JC is deep and his commitment to furthering the higher education opportunities for Valley residents is strong.

We recommend Jeff Kunde for the Santa Rosa Junior College Board of Trustees.

– Jason Walsh, associate publisher & editor

– Emily Charrier, publisher