Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Columbia College is bringing back a limited number of community education classes this spring, after a three-year hiatus because of budget constraints.

Community education classes are non-credit courses and don't apply to degree programs. The category covers a wide range of topics, from quilting to astronomy.

Columbia offered dozens of community education classes until summer 2009, but they were suspended because of a sour economy and declining enrollments. The program wasn't sustaining itself at the time it was put aside, according to college President Dennis Gervin.

"We do believe we have a system in place where we can support it now," he said.

Its rebirth means nearly endless class possibilities for Mother Lode residents, since course offerings are determined by community interest. A course could cover almost any topic as long as someone's willing to teach it and enough people are interested, Gervin said.

"It's really community driven, so I'm waiting to hear back from the community on what type of proposals we'll end up getting," said Chris Vitelli, Columbia's dean of education and economic development.

Fees for community education classes vary based on the materials required for each course, its site and other costs. Vitelli estimated that they would range from about $25 to $120.

The duration of courses could also range from two hours to several weeks.

Based on Vitelli's previous experience administering Merced College's community education program, he said the community education program at Columbia might include anything from fitness to writing to making holiday cookies.

"Some of the most popular classes were things like cupcake decorating - trendy things going on that might not ever make it to the credit side of the college," he said. "We're really going to start small … we want to make sure that the program is meaningful and that it meets community needs."

"Once we get it right we'll build on the program and let it expand," Vitelli added.

The once-popular "tours" to destinations such as San Francisco and Yosemite are likely to be on the list of community education courses this spring, Gervin said.

In fall 2008, the community education program included day trips to San Jose's Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum and viewings of the Nutcracker at San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House. It also featured classes on grant writing, computer basics, straw bale construction and making stained glass.

In addition to being fun, community education may provide a way to preserve regular course offerings that could be reduced if a state tax initiative is voted down. However, Gervin cautioned that the subject was "sensitive" for faculty members and no decisions have been made.

Columbia College would lose about $795,000 in state funding if Proposition 30, the tax increase championed by Gov. Jerry Brown, fails on the November Ballot. Discussions about ways to weather the storm have been underway for months.

According to the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office, funding forcommunity colleges has plummeted by $809 million since 2008-09. Their collective loss could worsen by another $338 million in January 2013, depending on the fate of Proposition 30.

Gervin said California is focusing its funds for community college education on three areas: career training, basic skills preparation in math and English, and degree programs that facilitate transfers to a four-year school.

Since the recession began, funding cuts have forced many California community colleges to cut back on a fourth mission - what Gervin calls "lifelong learning" for members of the general public.

He noted that the interest in lifelong learning among Mother Lode residents seems strong.

"It's great for us to be able to find a way to respond, in these times, and meet the need," he said.

Because community education classes rely entirely on fees, their reintroduction will not lead to cuts in math or science courses that students need to graduate, Gervin said.

The community education program is now accepting course proposals for spring 2013. The classes will begin in early February and continue in May.

To be considered, prospective instructors should complete and return a course proposal form as soon as possible. They will be reviewed starting Oct. 29 and can be accessed at

For questions about the community education program, contact Sandy Cardoza at 588-5198 or