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Article updated: 3/28/2013 2:26 PM

Oakton College hopefuls talk health care, retraining

By Madhu Krishnamurthy

Cutting teaching hours for part-time faculty, absorbing the cost of employee pensions, retraining today's workforce for an evolving job market, and improving graduation rates are among the top concerns for five candidates running for three, six-year term seats on the Oakton Community College board.

The candidates are incumbents Joan DiLeonardi, Ann Tennes, and Eric Staley, and newcomers Kyle Frank and Neil Meccia.

Board member George Alexopoulos is not seeking re-election and current student trustee Theresa Bashiri-Remetio, of Park Ridge, is running unopposed for a two-year vacancy.

The candidates say they're concerned about community colleges cutting hours for part-time faculty to avoid providing them health care under the Affordable Care Act.

Under the act, employers with 50 or more "full-time equivalent workers" must offer health plans to employees who work more than 30 hours a week beginning in 2014, or face possible fines.

Tennes said colleges need to take a careful look at what the law requires and what they can afford to be fair to employees and taxpayers alike.

"There's not going to be one perfect answer," said Tennes, 54, who first was elected in April 2007. "The optimal solution is going to be painful all around."

Tennes, of Skokie, is the director of marketing and communications for the village of Skokie, and previously served as assistant executive director of the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County.

Colleges have no choice but to comply with the new law, said DiLeonardi, who was appointed to the board to fill a vacancy in June 2001, elected to a six-year term in April 2003, and re-elected to a four-year term in April 2009.

"It is a balancing act," said DiLeonardi, a Des Plaines resident and retired executive for a nonprofit organization. "We really want to give health care to people who are working the number of hours, but it could get costly."

Frank, a Skokie attorney, said Oakton needs to get an exemption from the Affordable Care Act for a couple of years so the college has time to research the issue. This is one of many unfunded mandates coming down the pipeline for which colleges have to prepare, he added.

"The second issue is going to be pensions," Frank said, noting that Gov. Pat Quinn is asking community colleges to absorb the cost of teacher pensions. "How are we going to pay for that? Are we going to have to cut more faculty?"

With talk of more education funding cuts, students may have to pay more in tuition and fees to cover some of the added costs, he said.

Meccia, 58, of Skokie, agrees the board needs to do more research to assess the financial impact of the Affordable Care Act.

"I haven't really heard any other options at the faculty meetings," said Meccia, a professor, clinician and associate dean at the National College of Naprapathic Medicine in Chicago. "Faculty is very upset right now."

Staley, a partner at The Organic Gardener, Ltd., did not participate in the Daily Herald's candidate questionnaire or interview process and could not be reached for comment. He was appointed to the Oakton board in August 2011 and will serve until April 2013.

Another area of concern is the college's offerings to prepare workers for the kinds of jobs that will be in demand in future.

Frank said the college must examine its pricing policies for workers seeking retraining or further education.

DiLeonardi said Oakton already is excelling in some areas -- including partnerships with local businesses, a joint grant program with Harper College in Palatine to provide manufacturing training, and its partnership with the Northeastern Illinois Public Safety Training Academy to train police officers and firefighters. The college also works with The Workforce Board of Northern Cook County, she added.

"We are looking more toward green jobs; ancillary health care certificates," she added.

Tennes said Oakton needs to stay ahead of trends in health care and find niche industries for which it can train workers. She noted the college's latest partnership with the Illinois Science & Technology Park in Skokie and the village of Skokie to train people for technical jobs in the nanotechnology field.

"It's a very innovative partnership," she added.

Meccia said Oakton has done a good job of pursuing health care and nursing certification programs, but the college needs to focus on how many students are graduating with a certificate.

According to the Illinois Community College Board, about 70 percent of Oakton's full-time students who entered in fall 2008 graduated, transferred or stayed at Oakton through summer 2011, per the college's website.

DiLeonardi acknowledged the college's graduation rates were abysmal at one time and are creeping up slowly. She suggests dropping the $25 cap and gown fee for graduation that may be a deterrent for some students.

Frank said the college needs to make sure high school graduation requirements for subjects such as mathematics and English are better aligned with Oakton's curriculum prerequisites.

Meccia said Oakton needs to offer degree programs that are attractive to four-year universities.

"We need to have partnerships viable, worthwhile to students to complete the certificates and get an associate degree," he said.

Tennes said she and her husband attended Oakton 32 years ago, and while he graduated from the college, she simultaneously was taking courses at Columbia College in Chicago.

"We need to understand that not every student is pursing a certificate," she said.

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