Kern Community College District in California promotes from within, names Thomas Burke its next chancellor

Thomas Burke named chancellor of Kern Community College District

Thomas Burke, who for 12 years has served as Kern Community College District's chief financial officer, has been tapped to head the district when Chancellor Sandra Serrano retires in February, officials said Tuesday.

Trustees voted unanimously to hire Burke during a closed session Tuesday that coincided with his final interview to take charge of the district’s three colleges and five education centers, which serve about 26,000 students annually.

"I'm humbled, but with my experience I felt I was a good candidate ... I felt I could help the board more easily achieve their goals," Burke said after the meeting, adding that his long tenure with the district will provide an easy transition into the chancellor role.

The passage of Measure J, the district's $503.8 million bond measure, also played into the district's decision to hire Burke, Trustee President Dennis Beebe said. Already familiar with the projects, Burke's well-suited to guide the district as it issues the bonds and begins construction, he added.

"Mr. Burke has a wonderful track record in that district, he has immense knowledge of the district, the budget, the bond that was just passed and we have a lot of projects slated for that, so he was just the perfect candidate," Beebe said.

Bakersfield College's student government lauded Burke's appointment, calling him a "champion for student voice and concerns." Burke has, on more than one occasion, given student leaders primers on government finance and, more recently, taught them how they could promote Measure J within legal boundaries.

"He really wants the student governments to be successful and make impacts on our campuses," Matthew Frazer, Bakersfield College's Student Government Association spokesman, said.

While CFO, Burke "increased efficiencies" in the budget, leveraged local tax dollars from a 2002 bond measure by securing state matching funds and streamlined the business services department, Beebe said.

"All of which gives us more money to educate students," Beebe added.

He also served on a statewide funding formula task force to assist in developing a new allocation model for unrestricted funds across the California Community College system.

"With that comes a lot of respect," Beebe said. "I think that in itself is a huge assurance to our community that he’ll continue moving us forward in a good direction."

Addressing employee concerns will be chief among Burke's priorities upon becoming chancellor, he said Tuesday. The district recently completed a climate survey that Burke said will help him develop a direction for district operations.

"It’s through our employees that we make this all work for our community, so it's incredibly important," Burke said, adding that he's planning to meet with college leaders as he transitions. "We'll get a better understanding of what our roles are in this organization, and from that, how we work with each other to move forward."

A challenge the district must face during Burke's transition will be the loss of key leadership positions in the district office, including his own.

The district lost its vice chancellor of human resources, Abe Ali, earlier this year when he took a job at Mt. San Antonio College, and Burke's position will be vacant when he becomes chancellor. Burke said he plans to fill the HR role with an interim director before conducting a robust search.

It's unclear who would become chief financial officer, or if that role would be filled before he takes the top administrative job.

Burke has lived in Bakersfield since 1981. His career with KCCD began 20 years ago when he left the oil industry to become business director at Bakersfield College, where he worked with Serrano. Four years later in 2001, he was hired as KCCD's chief financial officer.
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