SMC — Senior citizens enrolled in yoga, tai chi and other exercise classes at the Emeritus College will still have the chance to sign up for their favorite courses come spring semester, Santa Monica College officials said this week, but the days of free enrollment may be coming to an end.

SMC’s ability to continue offering physical fitness classes for seniors fell into doubt earlier this year when the statewide community college system announced that non-credit dance and physical education courses would no longer be eligible for state reimbursement.

That put 38 Emeritus classes, many of which cater to elderly people recovering from injury or dealing with loss, in jeopardy of permanent cancellation.

While the plan to save the courses is still being hammered out, SMC officials this week said they expect all of the Emeritus college’s offerings — including four courses that were temporarily canceled — to be held this spring.

The state budget crisis, though, means there will likely be some significant changes.

One idea to preserve the offerings at Emeritus is to re-classify affected classes as “community service” classes — a change that would require students to pay a fee for formerly free courses, said Jeff Shimizu, SMC’s vice president of academic affairs.

He said course fees would be $20 per semester, a discount from the $60 average fee for similar classes geared toward non-seniors. The course fees could also be offset with a scholarship from the Santa Monica College Foundation, Shimizu said.

“Despite the budget challenges we have, we realize how important this program is to the community so we want to continue access for our students in these activities,” he said.

While the potential shift to a fee-based model for exercise classes at Emeritus could be a financial drag for some seniors, it’s the instructors that could be most affected.

Under the fee-based system, instructors would earn less — $50 per hour instead of $57 per hour — Shimizu said, and would lose eligibility for health insurance coverage offered to members of the faculty union.

Pat Akers, a tai chi instructor at Emeritus, on Wednesday said she could accept the pay cut in order to continue teaching Santa Monica seniors.

“No one likes to make less money, but I have a commitment to the students, and so if it means me taking a little less on the salary, then I’m OK,” she said.

Olivia Regalado, who teaches body movement and joint maneuver classes at the college, though, said she would “fight with everything in my being” to prevent the compensation cuts, which she said would “open the doors for substandard teachers” to come into the program.

She also said she was disappointed the SMC administration hadn’t held meetings with instructors to explain the funding situation.

“The great lack of communication has been a great stress among all of the teachers,” she said. “There has been no clarity whatsoever.”

Gloria Albert, who teaches health and exercise classes at Emeritus, echoed that sentiment: “We’re talking about our jobs and our livelihoods and our medical insurance and we don’t know what’s going on. There have been no meetings with the teachers.”

Prompted in part by fear the college was planning to cancel the exercise classes, an overflow crowd of seniors showed up at an SMC Board of Trustees meeting Tuesday night.

John Forster, 72, who for three years has been a student in a joint maneuvering class, told the board the exercise program has both physical and psychological benefits.

“We’ve become a family,” he said of his classmates in the twice-weekly sessions. “It’s quite vigorous and I find that after a couple weeks of [class meetings] my joints ache less.”

Raymonde Cenzano, another Emeritus student, said it was unfair that exercise classes were being targeted at the Emeritus college. They’re just as important as other offerings, she said.

“What people don’t always fully realize, because they’re much younger, is that the metabolism slows down, so exercise is really important — it makes all the different in the world,” she said.

The issue of Emeritus college exercise classes was not on the agenda and so was not discussed by board members on Tuesday. Shimizu said he expects to update the board on the situation next month.

Reached on Wednesday, SMC Board of Trustees member Rob Rader noted that the college is facing a $6 million operating deficit in the budget it adopted on Tuesday and has been forced to cut classes campus wide, resulting in long wait lists for students. Half of the campus’s offerings for winter inter-session classes have been cut.

Rader said he believes the college will reach a solution to prevent cancellation of Emeritus exercise classes, but said it will have to be a compromise.

“Everybody has to accept that nothing will look exactly as it did,” he said. “I think there’s a way to save substantially everything in some fashion, but we all need to pull together and work together.”

Meanwhile, there are a couple of other strategies for preventing cuts to class offerings at Emeritus under discussion.

Shimizu said the curriculums of all 38 affected classes will be reviewed to see if the courses could be re-designated as health courses, rather than as physical fitness courses — a distinction that would make them eligible for state reimbursement.

Re-designation decisions must be made by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

There’s also a plan to ask City Hall to chip in to fund the 38 courses, which cost about $91,000 per semester in teacher salaries, Shimizu said.

“We’re hoping that they would partner with us in offering some of these classes,” he said.

nickt@smdp.com

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