DOWAGIAC – The race for two six-year seats on the Southwestern Michigan College Board of Trustees has been a contentious one.
Incumbents Keith McKenzie and Todd Obren have refused to appear at candidate forums with the challengers, who they say are linked to a Facebook group they claim are attacking the college. Challengers Tom Buszek and Elaine Foster say the incumbents refuse to answer questions and aren’t looking out for the college’s or community’s best interests.
The SMC district covers all of Cass County and a small section of Van Buren County. A candidate forum sponsored by SMC student groups is set for 6 p.m. Oct. 28 at the Pokagon Community Center on Dailey Road.
McKenzie, 84, of Cassopolis, has served on the board for more than 30 years, having been appointed in 1987 and re-elected ever since. He is a retired farmer. He and his wife, Darlene, have three grown children.
He said he wants to continue the work of the college. He stresses his experience on the board and in state agricultural leadership positions. He said it’s important to give area residents access to an affordable education. Having a local community college fosters opportunities for area youth, he said.
Obren, 39, of Edwardsburg, was appointed to the board in 2015 and elected to a partial term in 2016. He is the South Market manager/Michiana Community President for Chemical Bank. He and his wife, Tiffany, have four children.
He said his work as a banker has shown him the importance of affordable education to the area’s economic prosperity. Issues important to him include fiscal responsibility, increasing scholarship money and giving students the total college experience. He said he’s proud of the college’s continuing investment in facilities and programs.
Buszek, 64, is making is first run for public office. He worked for 28 years at SMC as a faculty member and dean. He retired from Kalamazoo Valley Community College last year. He and his wife, Bernadette, have four grown children.
He said his decades of working for community colleges will be beneficial to the board. He said the college has wasted tax dollars on frivolous lawsuits and questionable expenses, including an annual $45,000 retention bonus for the college president. He is concerned about declining enrollment and the lack of transparency and communication.
Foster, 58, of Niles, worked for SMC for 27 years and was dean of Academic Studies and dean of Nursing before she left in 2011. She is now the dean of Nursing at American Sentinel University in Colorado. She and her husband, Scott, have two grown children.
She said she decided to run after hearing about the number of employees leaving the college and the decline in enrollment. She said sh’s concerned about the board’s lack of oversight over President David Mathews and his expenses, hikes in tuition and the college’s disregard of state requirements for pension system payments and alleged cover-ups of alleged misconduct.