SMC — Former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl was hired Tuesday by the Santa Monica College Board of Trustees to create a public policy institute at the school with hopes of providing residents with nonpartisan reports on key economic, social and political issues come election time.

Kuehl, who represented Santa Monica and other Westside communities in Sacramento for 14 years, plans to use her contacts to build a credible institute with a particular focus on the many issues facing the Westside and the region, including transportation, development, homelessness and housing.

“I want this institute to be of service to the west end of the county,” Kuehl said. “There is no public policy institute like this in the state. The difference is most public policy institutes … focus on federal policy. The don’t even focus as much on state policy in terms of analysis.

“This institute would focus on the mission of a community college, which is to educate the public,” Kuehl added. “The first leg of this three-legged stool is what I call critical thinking for voters.”

The institute would be a resource for voters as well as locally-elected officials, heightening civic engagement, she said. There will also be opportunities for students at SMC to expand their service learning curriculum and become more engaged through internships and other opportunities in the field.

Providing guidance to newly-elected officials who may not have as much training as others will also be a focus, helping City Council members and others develop solutions to the many pressing problems facing Westsiders.

At a time when many community colleges are strapped for cash and cutting back on class offering because of the budget crisis in Sacramento, SMC is taking the aggressive step of creating the institute, and doing so without paying much out of pocket.

The non-profit Santa Monica Foundation is covering 50 percent of the start-up costs, with the remainder being matched by the college. Additional fundraising efforts are ongoing.

The contract with Kuehl is for $5,000 per month plus expenses and covers Jan. 1, 2010 to June 30, 2010, according to an SMC staff report.

“I’m very excited and frankly, this is an amazing bang for the buck,” Kuehl said. “The cost is really minimal to establish a new institute.”

Trustee Nancy Greenstein led the charge, having heard people talk about creating an institute for years but never putting any action behind it. Discussions began in earnest roughly a year ago to create SMC’s first public policy institute.

“We are really looking at it as a local program that will help Santa Monica College maintain its reputation for being on the cutting edge,” Greenstein said.

With funding in short supply, Greenstein said the goal was always to protect core programs and day-to-day operations, which is why the foundation was brought in to help cover costs. She feels creating the institute is needed during a time when so many people are talking about the negative.

“Everything is sort of dismal on the education front, and sometimes just galvanizing people around an idea or concept is encouraging,” Greenstein said. “Sometimes when things are negative, that is when you have to take a chance.”

For Kuehl, this is a chance to “restore some rationality in looking at how we make policy.”

“It seems cities are doing a better job than Sacramento these days, being rational about policy and more deliberate,” Kuehl said. “That’s where we want to focus our efforts.”

The institute is still in the infant stages. More details are expected to be released in the coming months.

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