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California Cuts to the Bone
Community colleges are hit hard as a result of state's record budget deficit

By Kay Mills
Los Angeles

California's budget crisis is more than a headline for Israel Stepanian, a second-year student at Los Angeles City College, where a $5 million mid-year budget cut has led to the elimination of 330 class sections and the closing of the tutoring center that helped Stepanian improve his English.

"Many foreigners like me need help, especially with English," said Stepanian, 26, who moved to the United States from his native Armenia in 1994. Floundering with his English papers, Stepanian was referred to the writing center; his English grade improved and eventually he was hired as a tutor himself.

But last spring the center, with its $20,000 budget, was eliminated. "Now, I can survive because I passed the hardest part," Stepanian said. "This school made me what I am. When the school cannot treat new students the same way, they are not going to survive."

The writing center that helped Los Angeles City College student Israel Stepanian learn English has been closed because of a budget crisis.
(Photo By Axel Koester)

Located just off the Hollywood Freeway, not far from the Los Angeles Civic Center, LA City College draws heavily on its ethnically and racially mixed neighborhood. Many students, like Stepanian, need help with English. In any given year, one fourth of the student body may be foreign born. Countries in the former Soviet Union, such as Armenia and Russia, top the list of home countries, followed by South Korea, the Philippines, El Salvador, Japan and Mexico.

Last fall, 40.9 percent of LA City College's 18,372 students were Hispanic, 15.1 percent were Asian, and 11.9 percent were African American. "Look at this campus," said college President Mary Spangler. "It's a United Nations community."

Big-city community colleges are not the only ones feeling the pinch as California tries to close a budget deficit estimated to be more then $38 billion, larger than the entire budget in all but one other state (New York).

The impact also has been felt in the Yuba Community College District, which covers 4,192 square miles of farm country, an hour's drive north of Sacramento. Midway through the last academic year, the Yuba district had to slash its budget by $1.2 million. District officials eliminated class sections, laid off some part-time faculty, reduced travel, and imposed a hiring freeze. They also cancelled the January intersession, a period when some students would have taken remedial work or prerequisites for other courses.

For the 2003-04 academic year, Yuba is expecting another $7 million cut-15 percent of the total operating budget-in order to balance the budget and also maintain a $5 million reserve for emergencies.

(Final figures will not be known until Governor Gray Davis and the legislature agree on a budget. As this issue of National CrossTalk went to press, there was no agreement, and appropriations for community colleges remained in limbo.)

Problems like those at Los Angeles City College and the Yuba Community College District can be seen not only throughout California but also nationwide, as states trim higher education spending in order to reduce budget deficits. In many states, community colleges face deeper cuts than do public four-year colleges and universities, because the two-year schools depend heavily on state governments for their money, rather than on tuition, alumni and corporate donations and federal research grants.

This has been especially true in California since 1978, when voters passed Proposition 13, limiting the property taxes on which local schools and community colleges once depended. Now the state provides about two thirds of the funding.

The overall budget for California's 108 community colleges is expected to be about $5 billion this year (again, depending on how the governor and the legislature resolve the budget impasse). These campuses are organized into 72 college districts, each with its own governing board. There is a statewide Board of Governors, and there is a statewide chancellor-Tom Nussbaum-who have very limited powers.

Because of the mounting state deficit, the colleges' budget was cut by $161.5 million, or 3.2 percent, in the middle of the last academic year. Governor Davis had proposed even steeper mid-year cuts, but the legislature balked.

Even as the colleges were hacking away at programs to make those cuts, Davis announced his 2003-04 budget, with $530 million, or 10.5 percent, in community college reductions from last year's final budget act. The governor also asked for a tuition fee increase from $11 to $24 per credit unit. Even at $24, the California community colleges would remain among the least expensive in the nation, the non-partisan Legislative Analyst has pointed out.

After statewide protests by community college students and faculty, Davis revised his budget in May, restoring most of the money for several programs that serve low-income and disabled students, and lowering the tuition increase to $18 per unit. But the revised budget still called for $285 million, or 5.6 percent, in cuts for the two-year schools.

Like other states, California is in a budget fix, in large part because the faltering economy has reduced income and sales tax revenues even as the state's financial burden has increased due to inflation and population growth. In addition, in the good years over the last decade, California increased spending to reduce class size in the early grades, provide health insurance for more poor children, and expand financial aid for college students.

What has happened during the past school year, and what is likely to happen this fall at LA City College and at the Yuba Community College District, is commonplace around the state. Students will find fewer classes in which to enroll but will pay more for them. Part-time and even some full-time faculty are losing their jobs, and those who remain probably will teach larger classes. And administrators must make hard decisions.

Nicki Harrington, president of Yuba College, said "the mid-year reductions were very difficult because it was hard to pull the rug out. We were scrambling to carve anything we could out of the schedule before classes started." Of the $1.2 million in mid-year cuts, $800,000 to $900,000 was achieved by eliminating class sections.

"That was tough but the real difficulty lies ahead," Harrington said. If, as expected, Yuba must cut another $7 million from the operating budget, it will have 40 fewer positions-faculty, administrators and staff-this fall than Harrington thinks are needed to run the college adequately.

When a school lays off faculty, Harrington added, "you lay off the last hired. Often they represent the most diversity. They are also the people who have been out in the community and are aware of what's going on, the people who can relate to students best."

California State Senator Jack Scott, a former community college president, is trying to keep budget cuts in the two-year schools to a minimum.
(Photo By Rod Searcey)

The original Davis budget projected a statewide decline of about 64,500 FTEs (full-time-equivalent students) from last year's enrollment of more than one million, due to the proposed sharp tuition increase. In the revised May budget, containing a smaller tuition increase, the community colleges would serve about 40,000 more students than the initial budget allowed.

Community college students-many of them working adults who usually do not have time for protests-showed how unhappy they were with the budget at two large rallies last spring, first at the state capitol in Sacramento, then in Pershing Square, in downtown Los Angeles. They were especially vocal about the proposed cuts in programs for low-income and disabled students-cuts that have been largely rescinded since then.

There were also on-campus rallies. Heather Kirkpatrick, a 19-year-old Yuba College student, was asked to speak at the protest at her school. "I honestly thought there would be 20 or 30 students there, and I could handle that," she said. "I walked in and there were over 500 people in the cafeteria. For me, that showed a lot of support." Two full buses went from Yuba College to the Sacramento rally.

At the Pershing Square demonstration, students and faculty from LA City College, Los Angeles Trade Tech, Santa Monica College and other area campuses carried signs proclaiming: "I Had a Dream... Community College" and "War Budget Leaves Every Student Behind."

Angry students and faculty members marched in Los Angeles last spring to protest community college budget cuts.
(Photo By Axel Koester)

Gilberto Torres, 45, a student at LA City College, said he had been working as an electrician's helper when he learned that studying dental technology might lead to a good job. He was about to graduate from that program but attended the rally because he was "hoping to make it better for the next generation."

Torres had received a $300 book voucher from the Extended Opportunity Program and Services (EOPS), which also provides counseling, tutoring and meal vouchers for low-income students. The governor's initial budget proposed cutting this program by $43.2 million, or 45 percent, statewide. Thirty million dollars of the proposed cut was restored in the May revisions.

Los Angeles City College President Mary Spangler says budget cuts cause "serious repercussions through the college...It pits groups against groups."

Even if the final budget includes most of the money for this program, EOPS students still will be affected because LA City College will cut 400 more class sections this fall. Betsy Regalado, dean for student access and retention, said students must take 12 credit hours to qualify for EOPS, but with classes being sharply cut back, many will not be able to enroll in enough courses to remain in the program. EOPS serves 4,200 students, from a full-time enrollment of 15,700. LA City College President Mary Spangler had been hoping for an operating budget of $55 million to $56 million for the coming year, an increase of $2 to $3 million over 2002-03. It won't happen. In the worst-case scenario, the college must make $4.55 million in reductions, in the best case $3.17 million. "That causes serious repercussions through the college," Spangler said.

The school is reducing basic skills programs, cutting library hours, dismissing temporary workers, not filling vacant jobs, considering furloughs for administrators, and freezing supply budgets. Dana Cohen, who heads the dental technology department, said he paid for the wax and plaster his students needed this spring out of his own pocket.

Last year the college reopened a nursing program, a move that some campus critics questioned. "Why did we do it, knowing we would not have any more money?" Spangler asked rhetorically. Because, she said, LA City College is located near three major hospitals that were desperately short of nurses. People in the community also need to find good jobs so they can work in the area and not commute long distances, Spangler said, so the program seemed a good fit. Now she worries that the Board of Registered Nurses might question whether the college can afford to keep the program open.

Yuba College student Heather Kirkpatrick worries that higher tuition might interfere with her plans to transfer to a four-year campus.
(Photo By Rod Searcey)

LA City College also is building a parking garage and new buildings for science and technology and for health education. This construction money comes from a county ballot measure that was passed in 2001 and cannot be shifted into programs or salaries, but Spangler said the timing was distressful for some. "At the very time we are having to reduce classes, we are building and renovating. People don't understand."

Likewise, the Yuba Community College District is using bond funds for a new $5.8 million science building on its Woodland campus; again, students do not understand why construction is occurring while classes are being cut.

The mid-year elimination of class sections by the Yuba district "devastated areas like information technology, computers, automotive technology," said Kevin Trutna, associate dean for those areas.

Since community colleges are the leading provider of job training, "Why take money away from one of the answers to the economic problems?" asked Yuba College President Nicki Harrington. Jim Buchan, a member of Yuba's board of trustees, added, "people who are laid off come to community colleges for retraining-they don't go to UC (the University of California) or CSU (the California State University)."

But UC, Cal State and public K-12 schools have more political clout than the two-year colleges. UC has prestige and powerful alumni, while many legislators are Cal State graduates. Teachers unions contribute heavily to political campaigns, and parents can raise a clamor to fund the public schools. "It's plain politics," said Mark Drummond, chancellor of the nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District. "The teachers can flex their muscles. We have to figure out how to flex back to get our share."

"A college has to have a certain breadth and depth of offerings," said Los Angeles City College instructor Roger Wolf, decrying cuts in programs.

Community college administrators and faculty worry that such deep cuts will fundamentally alter the way their schools serve students. "If I were to draw an analogy, I would say it's like putting someone in prison camp," said Roger Wolf, chairman of the LA City College mathematics, computer science and technology department, which had its class hours cut deeply at mid year. When people leave a prison camp, Wolf said, "they are skinny and weak. They can't just bounce back. It takes time to regain their strength when you strangle somebody like that. You can trim fat, but once the fat is gone, you are cutting into muscle, into the strength and vigor.

"A college has to have a certain breadth and depth of offerings to be a college, to offer a genuine higher education," Wolf added.

Because of the diversity and motivation of the students, many faculty members love teaching at LA City College, said Alexandra Maeck, chair of the English/English as a Second Language department. "You see how much the students want to learn and what many of them sacrifice to come to class." That is why it is so painful to deny students an education, she said.

The elimination of so many class sections might mean it will take students longer to get the courses they need. If fees go up, some will have to work longer to pay for the increases. Heather Kirkpatrick, who is studying kinesiology at Yuba College, carried 18 units last spring while working three jobs. She is saving money to transfer to the Cal State system, but a fee increase will cut into those savings.

"I think that soon, instead of students needing two or three years to finish community college, it will be four years and six years to get their degree," Kirkpatrick said. "And a lot won't be able to get degrees because they can't afford it."

California's minority students will be hard hit by the community college cuts. Hispanics made up 27 percent of statewide community college enrollment in fall 2001, African Americans another seven percent. On University of California campuses, in contrast, Hispanics were 11 percent of the student population, African Americans three percent. In the 23-campus Cal State system, Hispanic students were 20 percent, African Americans six percent.

"The future of California is reflected better in the community colleges than in any other sector of higher education," said state Senator Richard Alarcon, a Democrat from Van Nuys. "You have to be sensitive to what communities are most negatively impacted. If your cuts are not at UC or CSU but are at the community colleges, then Mexican Americans and African Americans would be most negatively affected."

Dana Cohen, who teaches dental technology, must supply his own wax and plaster for students because of budget cuts.
Photo By Axel Koester

Community colleges are what makes this country better than other countries, said Alarcon, who years ago took economics and bookkeeping courses at San Fernando Valley College, after earning a bachelor's degree from Cal State Northridge, and whose son and daughter both attended Los Angeles Mission College, a two-year school. "We have a higher education system specifically for working-class people."

The community colleges' budget for next year might be an improvement over Governor Davis' May revisions, if and when a final budget is enacted by the legislature. If so, it will be because several key legislators insisted on better treatment for the two-year colleges, especially state Senator Jack Scott, a Pasadena Democrat who chairs the senate budget subcommittee on education, and Senator John Vasconcellos, of San Jose, a veteran Democratic member of the subcommittee.

"We said we would not let a budget out of here that treats the community colleges so unfairly," said Scott, a former president at both Cypress College in Orange County and Pasadena City College.

But the Scott-Vasconcellos proposals are part of a Democratic budget that depends on higher taxes, and Republicans in both the senate and the assembly appear to be determined to oppose any tax increases. Democrats control both houses but need a handful of Republican votes to reach the two-thirds approval required to pass a budget.

Meanwhile, State Controller Steve Westly says the lack of a budget means there is no money to send to community college districts. Statewide Chancellor Tom Nussbaum said most districts should be able to survive on reserves and other emergency funds through August, but if there are no state payments by then, "it's going to be very difficult for some districts." At least one-College of the Redwoods, on the far northern California coast-is considering cancellation of fall semester classes.

Yuba needs $3.5 million a month to meet its payroll and other obligations, President Harrington said. Her district, and others in the state, probably will seek tax anticipation revenue notes-loans-from institutional investors to tide them over. But Robert Turnage, vice chancellor for finance in the statewide office, said districts that have to borrow money and pay interest on the loans "are spending money on things other than the classroom."

Mary Spangler, the LA City College president, said the uncertainty and the budget-cutting climate are destructive to the culture of a college. "It pits groups against groups," she said. "The faculty is sure the administration does not care about the instructional program. The staff thinks that the faculty gets all the attention and money. The students think we don't care about them, because we have had to reduce tutoring and library hours. The administration becomes the whipping boy."

Spangler herself won't be around to see the budget outcome. She has accepted a job as chancellor of Oakland Community College, north of Detroit, which has an enrollment of 75,000, 14th largest in the nation.

Spangler, who has been president at LA City College since 1997, said she is not leaving California because of the budget situation but added that Michigan community colleges are in better financial shape because they are not as dependent on the state for most of their money. Oakland receives only 17 percent of its budget from state appropriations, the rest from a form of property tax. In addition, the college can keep the tuition revenue it collects, instead of sending it to the state, as California requires.

Spangler said Sacramento "needs to look at what they want their system to look like ten years down the road. We could destroy what we have. We've been nibbling around the edges, now we are cutting it to the bone. In the 1960s, California was a leader in higher education. Why can't we be again?"

Former Los Angeles Times editorial writer Kay Mills is the author of four books, including one on the federal Head Start program.

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