Brice Harris said it didn't take long for him to realize Los Rios Community College District was a special place with talented people.
That made the past 16 years fly by as he led the system's four colleges and 87,000 students.
But the 63-year-old said Thursday that it was time for him to retire as chancellor to pursue other interests. His last day will be Aug. 31.
"I still have my health and other chapters in my life," Harris said. "I'm not leaving the community. I have a large number of community interests and care about higher education."
Last year, a Bee review of employment contracts found that Harris was the highest-paid chancellor of the state's 15 largest community college districts, earning $390,000 in total compensation. In addition, the Los Rios district reimbursed Harris $31,200 for his employee contribution to the California State Teachers' Retirement System.
Harris has donated a 7 percent raise his contract called for to the Los Rios Foundation, which supports college programs.
"He's certainly, in the board's opinion, earned every penny of what he makes," said Los Rios board President Ruth Scribner. "He's had incredible relationships with the community. He's a leader on educational issues in the nation."
Harris successfully lobbied for two local bond measures to fund renovations and an expansion. He also led the district's efforts to put educational centers in West Sacramento, Natomas, Placerville and Davis. Another center is under construction in Elk Grove.
Under Harris, Los Rios expanded its nursing program and designed a program to train students for green technology careers.
"Brice's tenure has been a golden period for Los Rios," said Dean Murakami, president of the Los Rios College Federation of Teachers. "He has been fantastic in leading our college district in times of budget difficulties and when budgets were good."
The Los Rios board will be working on a timeline for a nationwide search to identify Harris' replacement. Scribner said she would like students, faculty, staff and the community to be a part of the selection process.
Harris said he had planned to retire last year, but the timing seemed wrong when the "budget went from bad to worse." He said he will help the district develop a budget for the 2012-13 school year.
"We are still in a tough budget time, but there is every indication that the economy is beginning to slightly improve," he said.
Over the past three years, course offerings fell and tuition rose from $26 a unit in spring 2011 to $36 this semester. Fees will increase to $46 a unit this summer.
Harris said enrollment declined from a high of 92,000 students in the spring of 2010 to 87,000 students today.
"That's been very, very hard," Harris said. "We believe in the open-door concept. When parents and students tell me they can't get the classes they need to graduate, that's very difficult to hear."
Harris said the highlight of his tenure was working to improve graduation rates and access. On Saturday, Sacramento City College in the Los Rios district will open a center in Davis that is the first community college on a University of California campus.
"When people look at the time I've spent here, if we've accomplished things, it's not about me as the CEO, but about an organization dedicated to serving the community," Harris said. "I've been proud to be a part of it."