Saving a Community College
When Thomas M. Fallo, superintendent of the El Camino Community College District, heard that Compton Community College was going to become the first public college ever to lose its accreditation, he wanted to do something.
Last June, citing the California college’s poor governance and lack of student support services, along with a history of financial mismanagement, the Western Association of Schools and Colleges's community college commission decided to strip Compton’s accreditation. Without accreditation, students at a college are not eligible for federal financial aid.
But Fallo was told about a year ago that, even though El Camino is just miles away, only districts directly bordering Compton could step in to take Compton over and allow students to continue taking accredited courses there.
None of the immediate neighbors volunteered, so the Peralta Community College District, 400 miles to the north, stepped up to consider lending a hand, and its accreditation.
When Fallo heard that Peralta was being considered, “we said, ‘Well, I guess it doesn’t have to be contiguous anymore,’ ” Fallo said.
So came El Camino to the rescue. “It’s about helping someone in need. We are a community college system and we believe community is very important.”
On Wednesday, a day after Compton’s last day as an accredited institution, El Camino and Compton approved a memorandum of understanding that will have El Camino running the new El Camino College Compton Center, which will offer exclusively El Camino courses on Compton’s campus, taught by Compton faculty members.
The California Legislature passed a bill in June that allows the partnership between two districts, while outlining a plan for continued oversight of Compton, and giving a $30 million loan to help Compton get back on its feet and eventually apply for accreditation again.
Over a year ago, as Compton was headed toward losing its accreditation, “there was some denial in the community, and to some extent on the [Board of Trustees] about the status of the district and the need for the state to be there” for oversight, said Thomas E. Henry, a special trustee at Compton who was appointed by the California Community Colleges chancellor. But now, Henry said, “the faculty and staff have for the most part embraced it. They understand the college did lose its accreditation.”
The Peralta partnership with Compton actually looked shaky, as Peralta was having its own problems with the accreditation commission. The commission put Peralta on warning over concerns about its ability to pay retirement plans for its own employees. And Peralta trustees were far from sold on the partnership. “We wanted to be indemnified against any kind of financial backlash,” said Cy Gulassa, a Peralta trustee, “and we wanted a significant amount of money to run the administrative stuff.” Peralta gained assurances on some of the issues it raised, but “there were a lot of question marks surrounding the whole thing,” Gulassa said.
So when El Camino, which is right in Compton’s backyard, stepped forward, Peralta was glad step back. El Camino Community College is actually the closest community college to Compton, even though the districts don’t touch.
The understanding between El Camino and Compton protects El Camino from any lawsuits that result from the actions of Compton employees, who are still employees of the Compton Community College District, even though the college essentially doesn’t exist.
The understanding also provides up to $1 million a year for El Camino to perform administrative functions, and help Compton shape up its ship. Compton can’t even apply for accreditation for two years, and then it would be years after that before the institution earned the approval.
Fallo said that the partners hope to sign a five-year contract early next year, while El Camino runs the center in the meantime. Since the Compton campus is now part of El Camino, only El Camino courses will be offered, and Henry said that some students have been lost because some courses, like lower level English as a second language, are not offered by El Camino. Additionally, about 6 of Compton’s 100 faculty members would need additional training to meet El Camino’s standards.
Even though El Camino has taken over the Compton campus, there is still a possibility that the whole deal will fall through. In fact, Fallo said that whether El Camino signs a contract will ultimately be contingent on a bill currently in the legislature, Senate Bill 361, the Community Colleges Funding Formula Reform, would give a community college a one-time $1 million bonus for operating a center like the one El Camino is going to operate, and another $1 million for having more than 20,000 fulltime students. El Camino currently has 18,100 fulltime students.
Long before its troubles, Compton used to have 6,400 full time students, but now it only has around 500. With the new partnership, though, Compton’s enrollment is expected to rise rapidly.
Fallo said that he’s confident that SB 361 will pass, and he said he’s excited to get the partnership underway. “This is history making in the state of California,” Fallo said. “And in the United States.”