This coming academic year, when nearly all of California’s 72 community college districts are either cutting classes or keeping their numbers level despite unprecedented demand, one district is bucking the trend and adding classes. But it is taking a significant risk in doing so with one-time money — without knowing whether it will be able to maintain the funding to make the additions permanent.
Last week, the San Diego Community College District announced that it was adding about 1,150 classes for the academic year that starts Aug. 23. Most of the classes will be in high-demand general education transfer subjects, remedial sections and work force development programs. This reverses a two-year trend of cuts in which the district’s three colleges — City College, Mesa College and Miramar College — trimmed nearly 1,900 classes.
Richard Dittbenner, director of public information and government relations, noted that the district is using reserve funds and scraping together the remaining balance from its operating budget to pay for the additional classes. He acknowledged that the district cannot make a habit of spending what is essentially money from its rainy day fund to maintain the increase indefinitely.
“We’re banking that the state of California will provide us with at least a 2 percent budget increase for growth in each of the next two years,” said Dittbenner, referring to what some say is the general consensus in Sacramento on higher education funding as the 2011-12 state budget undergoes debate. “For this year, it’s one-time money, but we hope we’re going to be able to catch up on the balance sheet. We can sweep the reserves again next year and float these classes again. But, after two years, if the state doesn’t fund growth of classes — oh my goodness — then the future of the classes we added is inconclusive.”
The district’s move follows a disruptive 2009-10 academic year, when the state’s community college budget was cut by 8 percent and, as a result, classes were cut by more than 6 percent statewide. Students were turned away from community colleges around the state in record numbers , unable to get a seat in at least one class. About 10,000 students were turned away from the San Diego Community College District — which already serves around 100,000 students.
Amid prior instability, the California Legislature has yet to formally approve a budget for the current fiscal year, which began July 1.
Dittbenner said he hopes his district’s move will send a message to lawmakers in Sacramento to rethink how higher education is funded in the state. He argued that the state law requiring that community college districts spend at least 50 percent of their general fund revenue on classroom instruction — essentially just faculty salaries — forced his district to take this financial risk.
“That 50 percent doesn’t include counselors, librarians, IT support, etc.,” Dittbenner said. “Presumably these are things which enhance instruction. If expenses on the wrong side of that equation exceed money spent on instruction, then you’re fined by the state. Well, because of the state budget problem here in California, the chancellor’s office agreed to a workload reduction, which downsized most of the community colleges in the state. That put many districts, including us, on the wrong side of that equation. To get back on the right side, we either had to increase instructional expenses or drastically reduce non-instruction expenses by $4 million.”
The district’s decision not to fire full-time contract staff, Dittbenner explained, was informed by Chancellor Constance Carroll’s belief that these individuals are “as essential to the well-being and integrity of the academic program” as professors. Laying off full-time staff, he continued, would only further hurt the district. Given the alternatives, he said, the district will hire back some of the same adjunct instructors it had to lay off during the past two years to teach the courses it is adding with one-time funds, with the understanding that their stay may not last longer than two years.
Dittbenner acknowledged that it could be somewhat problematic policy for both students and faculty to offer a slew of new courses without the guarantee that the district would be able to maintain them beyond two years. But the district, he said, is “caught between a rock and a hard place.”
“We were forced to spend or we’d be fined for not meeting the 50 percent rule,” Dittbenner said. “We think the 50 percent rule should change, and we would be supportive of efforts to change it so that, at a bare minimum, it included counselors and librarians and related expenses.”
Faculty leaders at the district’s three colleges, by and large, applaud the move to add more classes but admit they would also be hesitant to make such a move if times were better financially.
Cynthia Rico Bravo, Academic Senate president and a counselor/professor at San Diego Mesa College, called the decision to use one-time money to fund additional classes “a noble move.”
“It’s a great step that the district has decided not to decimate the non-instructional end,” Rico Bravo said. “All research shows that students can only meet their goals with the help of student support services. It’s also a win-win that it’ll allow more students to fulfill their classroom requirement right now.”
In the short term, Rico Bravo explained, the extra sections will help the many local students who are just a few credits shy of graduating and have had to postpone completion due to the budget crisis. Beyond the immediate completion push, she added, the move appeals to faculty members because it provides more access to incoming students.
“Are we fooling students by offering this many sections for right now if we can’t be sure we can keep it up?” Rico Bravo said. “I see that point, but I don’t think so. We have faith that we’ll be able to somehow fund what we have now. We’re lobbying as hard as we can. But access is important to us. Right now, this is a good opportunity, especially when you come to the first week of classes and there are tons of students coming to you begging for classes.”
Acknowledging the role that the 50 percent law played in her district’s decision to add classes, she said that she believes the rule needs to change to accommodate other student service expenses. Still, she noted that her perspective is not typical of all faculty members, given that she is both a counselor and a professor, and it is rare to see a person in a faculty leadership position who straddles this divide.
Jim Mahler, president of the local branch of the American Federation of Teachers’ union that covers most of the district’s faculty, takes a different perspective on the 50 percent rule.
“It did force the district’s hand to add more instructional costs back into the budget, there’s no doubt about it,” Mahler said. “Is there something wrong with the 50 percent rule? Not necessarily. If anything, this just shows how way out of whack [the district] was on the 50 percent law.”
Mahler does not think that adding counselors and librarians to this count would have mattered much in case of his district’s decision. While he applauded the move to add more courses, he said he would have preferred for the college to add full-time faculty instead of adjuncts.
“Hiring full-timers would help the district get back in line with the 50 percent rule faster,” Mahler noted. “At this point in time, when you need to spend $4.8 million, why not hire all full-timers? If things turn around, then that’s great. But, if not, you can just reduce sections but at least you’ll have the faculty there.”
Statewide academic observers are taking note of the San Diego district's decision and its relative risk.
Jane Patton, president of the Academic Senate of California Community Colleges, said that faculty and administrators often have no guarantees that they will be able to maintain a certain number of class sections from semester to semester. The term-by-term fluctuation, however, is typically much smaller than the 1,150 sections being added at San Diego’s three colleges.
Though Patton acknowledged that her organization has been approached many times about altering the 50 percent law, she believes the much larger issue is not how much should be spent on faculty salaries, but how much the state should be spending on community colleges.
“The academic senate is willing to discuss the 50 percent law to include counselors and librarians,” Patton said. “But the only blame is really a lack of funding from the state. We have no idea what’s going to happen in Sacramento.”
As for how the rest of the state will receive the news that one of its largest community college districts is adding a ton of classes this coming year, Dittbenner said reaction would be mixed.
“Some people will see this and say, ‘Things are so bad and they added all these classes. Now why can’t our district do the same?’ ” he said. “Still, there are slightly different challenges in budgeting from district to district. We’ve made a move consistent with our values, and our district enjoys a good fiscal reputation.… Still, to use a west coast metaphor, we’re riding the wave, but we could wipe out.”