Chancellor Prescribes Advocacy For California Community College Crisis
Scott came to the campus he once oversaw as president to discuss the state budget crisis and cuts to the higher education system. He shared advice for students, administration and faculty on what can be done in the fight to protect community colleges.
“We're seeing what I would call a death by a thousand cuts,” Scott said. “That's not good news for the state of California.”
Last month, the California Community Colleges received an unannounced budget cut of $149 million—a 2.75 percent budget decrease. This added to the $400 million cut to the 2011-12 budget and $102 million slash to funding mid-year last December. Since 2008, the system of 112 colleges experienced losses totaling $806 million.
California State University’s most recent report on possible slashes to enrollment, faculty, staff and programs came two days before Scott’s speech at PCC. He mentioned the issue in relation to the strain it puts on community college transfer students, and he illuminated the most probable solution in avoiding all anticipated cuts to education: A tax measure on the November ballot.
“I want to make it clear that I'll be very supportive of that tax initiative because it'll mean $3 to $4-million dollars more to community colleges,” Scott said. “And if it doesn't pass, it might mean another big cut to community colleges. I understand the plight of CSU, but I can't help saying it’s going to hurt our students.”
The two initiatives vying for the November ballot call for hikes in income tax to fund education and ease the state’s deficit. However, community colleges and public universities are preparing for the worst and are already planning to curtail costs.
College of the Desert said they anticipate another slash of $1.8 million to the 2012-13 fiscal year if voters don’t pass the measure. They look to downsize an additional 100 courses from next year’s catalogue and trim employee benefits when possible.
Santa Monica College recently proposed a controversial two-tier pricing system, offering classes at a higher price for priority enrollment. SMC has removed more than 1,000 courses since 2008 and is struggling to find alternative funding.
While on stage, Scott was unable to offer the distressed crowd any solace in what already was cut, but he championed for the tax initiatives and reinforced student action on the state level.
Announcing his retirement as California Community Colleges' Chancellor for this coming September, Scott spoke as an administrative veteran and also as a former member of the State Legislature; he represented California’s 21st Senatorial District for 12 years and served on a number of educational committee’s, including his reign as chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Subcommittee. Scott’s extensive resume puts him in a unique position to understand the politics behind budget allocation, something he tried to offer to the distressed crowd gather at PCC last Thursday.
“I would say a good four or five people—a student, faculty, and a trustee—all of those people could make a really good case in front of the legislature,” Scott said. “I was a legislature for 12 years. I paid attention to those people who came into my office. I might not have agreed with everything they said, but I paid attention to them.”
Scott mentioned his attempt to inform his former associate legislatures of the community college crisis; however, he added that they need to hear from the collective-- and most importantly from students-- to see firsthand how these institutions serve the California community when California serves them.
“Unfortunately, the state of California has not recognized and appreciated what higher education is doing,” Scott said. “We will pay a price in the future of those thousands of students who can't come into our institutions because simply there's just not enough room.”
The dramatic increase in the number of students enrolling in California community colleges shows the growing demand in education. Aside for the current atmosphere of overcrowding and course enrollment caps, the spike would otherwise be viewed as a success—people actually want to go to school.
“The good news for California Community Colleges is simply I've never known community colleges to be more popular than they are today,” Scott said. “Not just in California, but across the nation, people are recognizing the value in community colleges.”
Enrollment at California Community Colleges has grown 44 percent in the past 15 years, according to the Chancellor’s Office reports; however per student funding has also decreased in that same amount of time.
When the economy fell, people found themselves without jobs and community colleges became inundated with new students wanting to better their craft. It added to the already present student body that found affordable and attainable paths to four-year universities.
Geoff Thiel, 35, started school at PCC two years ago studying mechanical engineering to further the knowledge he gained as an auto-mechanic in the field. Working part-time and taking classes, he said his goal to attend a Cal State became a brutal task this semester because he couldn’t enroll in the classes he needed to transfer.
“Even having the priority registration I have now, everything was full by the time I went to register,” Thiel said. “I'm in one class because I couldn't get into anything I needed and it probably packed another year onto my plan.”
Thiel mentioned an instance when he noticed someone deliberately cheat to win a seat in a class lottery. Frustrating and unfair in his eyes, the incident further portrays the air of ruthlessness infecting education.
At PCC, the unannounced mid-year slash to budgets led to the elimination of 45 courses after the 2012 spring semester already started. It left 428 students without the classes they needed to transfer or gain their degrees.
The cut left all California Community Colleges scrambling for alternatives. At PCC, administration continues to work towards providing those students compromised by course cuts with a “Spring Forward to Completion” session to help them reach their planned 2012 graduation or transfer date.
“You don’t want to get to the point of having to offer solutions in the first place, but I think [Spring Forward] is a good solution,” said Daniela Rueda, vice president for business affairs with Associated Students of PCC.
Rueda sits as a student representative at budget committees and sees first-hand PCC’s effort to accommodate slashes to funding. She was tentative about the program's launch date of next week, but she said it’s in direct response to those thrown off track by February’s course cuts.
Also pressed to find funding options, Santa Monica College introduced an at-cost plan to increase fees and offer priority enrollment based on a two-tier structure of class dues. The proposal meets much scrutiny because it clashes with the ideals of community colleges, but according to Chancellor Scott, it might also be an issue of legality.
“The Chancellor's office has previously indicated to colleges that we believe that step would be illegal,” Scott said. “Theirs was an attempt to change the law that failed last year and I know SMC has chosen to go along and do it anyway, and frankly, we will seek an opinion for the attorney general's office as to whether or not that is legal or not.”
Having to contend with the budget crisis, community colleges across the state turn people away with a desire to learn. The system, which built campuses promoting social equity and access to higher education, now contradict the principles they once were founded on.
“It's definitely something that I'm wary of—where the mission of the community college system could actually be compromised by this thing,” Rueda said. “It's unfortunate because no one wants to be that boulder between a person and their education and their ability to succeed and grow.”
Call to Action
Alleviating the damages of mid-year cuts adds to California community colleges' grim agenda. They face the additional task of adjusting future budgets in anticipation that funding will continue to plummet in the next fiscal year.
However, there might be one last chance to save campuses from future cuts. According to the proposed tax initiatives looking to reach the November ballot, voters have the power to channel funding into higher education with a check of the box.
Two possible measures look to increase income taxes on California’s most wealthy residents. Scott openly supports the measure proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown because it will allegedly pour money into both the wounds of education and the state deficit.
“It won't completely replace all the money that has been taken away in the past three years, but it would be a step in the right direction,” Scott said after his speech at PCC. “Governor Brown said that if it does pass, he wants to see a 4 percent increase in subsequent years in institutions of higher education… There’s no question it would be a big help.”
Earlier this month, Gov. Brown consolidated efforts with the California Federation of Teacher’s "Millionaire's Tax" to better the likelihood that voters pass a tax increase in November. The new merged initiative is coined the "California Sales and Income Tax Increase Initiative," bringing together the governor’s concern for the state budget with CFT’s concern for public education.
If approved, it will increase both income taxes of those making annual earnings over $250,000 for five years and the state sales tax by half a cent for fours years. K-12 schools will receive 89 percent of the tax revenues with the other 11 percent going to community colleges.
It goes up against Pasadena civil rights attorney Molly Munger’s public education measure referred to as "Our Children, Our Future." Munger’s initiative also looks to increase both sales and income tax, projecting state revenues of up to $10 billion a year.
However, colleges across California are currently in conversations about what they can afford to lose if such measures don’t pass in the upcoming election. Planning for the worse rather than anticipating the best, the projected cuts to staff, courses and student enrollment propagates the fear already troubling the academic community.
If the tax increases fail to pass, PCC-- for instance-- expects another $6.4 million shortfall next year.
Chancellor Scott's ending remarks on Thursday were directed to the students who filled the auditorium-- some worried, some angry, and some unaware of what to do. As he rounded up the theme of his speech, it was less of a call to action as it was a call to resilience.
“I want to say to those of you who are students—don't give up because your education is your key to mobility,” Scott said. “All the studies indicate that the more you're educated, the more likely you are to increase your economic outcome, the better health you'll enjoy, the less likely you are to become unemployed and on welfare… All those benefits come you as a result of education.”
Reach reporter Lauren Foliart here.