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State’s community colleges spend millions on duplicative administrators

California's community college districts spend tens of millions of dollars on administrative positions that could be consolidated or shared by districts a short drive away, even as budget shortfalls have forced reductions in core academic functions.

Carlos Puma/California Watch Richard Raasueld studies at Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree.The district broke from the Desert Community College District in 1999. The region’s two districts, with one college each, are among the state’s smallest. 

 

The state’s 72 community college districts spend tens of millions of dollars on administrative positions that could be consolidated or shared by districts a short drive away, a California Watch analysis has found.

In the wake of huge budget shortfalls, California’s vast community college system has reduced its core academic functions – slashing millions of dollars by eliminating nearly a quarter of class sections, cutting services and laying off employees. At the start of the fall 2012 semester, more than 470,000 students had been waitlisted for classes at community colleges statewide. But millions of dollars still are spent on duplicative administrative costs.

More than half of the state’s community college districts are within 20 miles of another district. And the vast majority of those districts have a single college. If these districts shared administrators, they potentially could shave millions off their expenses.

Take the Riverside, Mt. San Jacinto and Desert community college districts, all in Riverside County. Together, they operate five colleges with three chancellor’s offices, three human resources departments, three finance offices, three facilities departments and three academic affairs offices, not to mention three boards of trustees.

The cost of employing the 15 executives who lead these departments, plus one or two support staff for each, totals nearly $6 million. The cost of running the three boards, including elections, legal support, stipends, benefits, support staff and travel expenses, equals nearly $1.7 million, records show.

The three districts employed more than 130 executives in total in 2010.

If the three districts could consolidate and whittle their bureaucracies down to one chancellor, one board and one head of each big administrative office, the savings would total $4.9 million – money that could, for example, pay for 960 additional class sections.

Riverside Community College District Chancellor Gregory Gray believes the savings could be even bigger.

“In this one district alone, you could easily save $5, $6, $7 million,” he said. “Multiply that up and down the state and you get a big number.”

Asked whether the system should consider merging some districts to save money, Gray didn’t hesitate. “Without a doubt and unquestionably, the answer to that is we should do that,” he said.

You could look at those facts, take note of the state’s revenue challenges and wonder why lawmakers aren’t already ordering cuts, mergers and cost savings.

But first you’d need a lesson on the way things operate in Sacramento.

“It is extremely difficult for a local chancellor like myself to try and initiate this type of discussion unless it’s really starting from the top,” said Gray, noting that no one in the state Capitol is championing consolidation.

Carlos Puma/California Watch Riverside Community College District Chancellor Gregory Gray said he thinks the state community college system should consider merging some districts to save money.

For many of the community college districts, the potential savings may never be realized because the system of local districts is so deeply entrenched. In fact, obscure statutes in the California Education Code make it all but impossible to save money through merging districts – at least in the short run.

Students have borne the brunt of cuts to the system. They have been slapped with fees that have risen 130 percent in the past five years and have been unable to get into the classes they need. But the status quo has been protected.

The state’s community college system isn’t the only place in California’s $92 billion budget where excess can be found. California Watch chose to zero in on the college system because of its sheer size and because it touches so many lives. Some 2.4 million students attend community college classes.

California’s community college system is the largest in the nation and the backbone of higher education in the state, serving the vast majority of the state’s college students at the lowest price with the greatest number of locations. The system is especially essential now, as President Barack Obama has pushed for greater resources for community colleges to shore up the country’s workforce through job training and education.

California Watch reporters examined parts of the state community college system’s bureaucracy to identify spending patterns and understand why reforms may prove elusive.

The 72 districts keep payroll and other data in different formats, which makes comparison difficult. So California Watch drilled down on 16 districts, taking into consideration the availability of detailed payroll data, geographic proximity and district size.  

The group of 16 districts had duplicative executives or managers in 21 positions, not including chancellors and presidents. A total of 253 individuals cost the districts $30 million in salaries and at least $7.9 million in benefits in 2011.

A broader analysis of the system revealed:

  • The state Education Code prevents districts from laying off any administrators for the first two years after merging, making it more difficult for districts to save money by consolidating.
  • The public appears open to change. California Watch commissioned a Field Poll that found an overwhelming majority favors consolidating community college administrative functions to save money.
  • As the ranks of elected community college trustees have swollen, their power and profile have diminished. The state pays for 442 community college district trustees, including an average annual cost of $5 million for elections. But the authority of these elected board members weakened significantly 35 years ago when voters approved Proposition 13, which transferred control over revenues from the boards of trustees to the state. 
  • The Field Poll conducted in the fall for California Watch found that the majority of respondents had little or no knowledge about district board elections.

Unlike the centrally managed systems for the California State University and University of California, community colleges sprouted up largely as extensions of high school districts. That helps explain why they’re organized into 72 locally governed bodies dotting the California terrain – each with its own bureaucracy.

In 2010, community colleges reported spending at least $1.7 billion on top-level administration, including pay for district executives and the cost of the 72 separate governing boards, according to a California Watch analysis of U.S. Department of Education data. The total cost of the system that year topped $10 billion.

But the 72 districts don’t all report administrative spending to the federal government in the same way. That makes it difficult to compare how much each district spends on bureaucracy or to compare the community college system to other higher education systems.

The Riverside Community College District, for example, included $3.5 million in state money it spent on enterprises such as parking and student activities. The Long Beach Community College District did not include that category of expenses.

The chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, said the state should consider district consolidation.

“There’s no question that there (are) more individual districts than is efficient and, in many cases, the efficiencies that can be gained would mean more classes for students,” Williams said. “And that’s really the tragedy of the system, is the lack of funding and the lack of reform.”

However, while lawmakers can encourage a statewide examination into the costs and benefits of district unification – through studies and hearings – Williams said local leaders ultimately need to sign on to make such a move successful.

Creating a new district

To see how much cost a district structure can add, consider how much California paid when it built one from scratch.

The seeds of Copper Mountain College in the High Desert took root in 1967, when the Desert Community College District in Palm Desert began offering college classes at local schools in the Morongo Basin.

Community leaders in the area began to envision having their own full-fledged college. In 1970, the district bought land on the side of Copper Mountain in Joshua Tree with the idea of eventually building a campus there. And in 1977, voters elected the first Morongo Basin resident to the district board of trustees. Virnita McDonald advocated for a college at Copper Mountain.

A new foundation, the Friends of Copper Mountain College, began raising money for a building campaign. Its success led to the opening of the Copper Mountain campus in 1984.

Still, college leaders wanted independence from the Palm Desert district. They argued that their campus wasn’t getting its fair share of resources. They believed the district should have built the Copper Mountain campus sooner.

“We felt that we were significantly different from the Palm Desert community,” said Owen Gillick, who has been involved with Copper Mountain College since 1975 and recently retired from the district’s board of trustees. “We felt that even having one of five trustees residing here did not give … us the control over our destiny that we felt we deserved to have.”

Frustrated by what it saw as a lack of action by district leaders, the Friends of Copper Mountain College met with Republican state Sen. Jim Brulte in 1998, hoping for a political solution.

Brulte agreed to tackle the issue. A bill he introduced authorized a new, separately funded district – without needing the approval of voters in Palm Desert.

David Wolf, then the executive director of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, said in an interview that he was uncomfortable with the creation of a district of that size in that location because of obvious fiscal limitations.

Thomas Nussbaum, chancellor of the community college system at the time, also said he had concerns – not only about the extra cost, but also about the circumvention of the standard process for forming a district.

But the involvement of a powerful legislator made the move inevitable, they said.

Brulte “had already made up his mind on the subject and probably had the ability to pass whatever legislation he wanted to pass,” Nussbaum said.

In 1999, the bill became law. Almost overnight, the region went from having one college and one district to two colleges and two districts.  

With the new designation came new trappings. The district created two new jobs that mirrored positions at Palm Desert’s College of the Desert: a chief human resources officer and a chief business officer. Copper Mountain also hired a director of fiscal services, promoted the provost to CEO and promoted a professor to a position as chief instructional officer. A new local board was elected. State budgets provided $3 million in the first two years to foot the bill for the transition.

From 1998, before the secession, to 2002, four years after the split, the cost of top-level administration for College of the Desert and Copper Mountain College doubled, growing at twice the rate of the system as a whole. Copper Mountain currently has nine administrators and faculty who make more than $100,000 per year.

Both districts are among California’s smallest. The Desert Community College District enrolls roughly 13,000 students. Copper Mountain, the spinoff, is the second-tiniest district in the state, with 3,000 students enrolled last year.

Tiny districts are, by nature, inefficient. In fact, their fixed costs are so high that the state funding formula adds on extra money for them. As a result, per-student funding at Copper Mountain in 2010 was about $8,200 – more than 40 percent higher than the state average of $5,700. 

“They’ve got to have a board, they’ve got to have a basic campus, they’ve got to have a basic administration, they’ve got to have a basic faculty even if their class size is very small,” Wolf said. “So why would you create something like this … when there’s 55 miles away a great big campus that provides everything?”

Gillick did not dispute that forming a new small district entailed significant costs. But he said consolidating Copper Mountain with a neighboring district would be an “unsuccessful implant.”

“These small things (districts) are costly, but they have a value that can’t be measured in bucks,” he said.

Brulte, now the California Republican Party chairman, said there was no requirement in the law that the new district add more administrators. The move had a positive impact in the area, he said.

“At the end of the day, additional resources went to Copper Mountain, and it eliminated a tremendous source of conflict within the Morongo Basin,” he said. “The people of the Morongo Basin got to have control of the college district in their community.”

Overlapping roles

When you look at a map of California’s community college districts, the dots tend to cluster. More than half of the districts are within 20 miles of at least one other community college district.

Each district comes with a cadre of highly compensated executives who do the same thing as their counterpart with the same title at a district 10 or 15 miles away. In theory, geographically close districts could share a vice president of human resources or a chief business officer.

It’s unclear how much could be cut, but the community college system spends at least 17 cents of every dollar on top-level administrative costs.  

California Watch analyzed payroll data for 16 districts. Combined, the districts – a mix of small and larger ones – had 18 directors of public relations, 21 directors of campus facilities and 12 institutional research chiefs. Not including the district superintendents or college presidents, the districts had some level of overlap in 21 executive or management positions.

Meanwhile, colleges have dealt with budget cuts by cutting classes. Before last year’s passage of Proposition 30, which temporarily increases income and sales taxes to fund education, funding for community colleges had decreased by $809 million, or 12 percent, since 2008-09.

In that time period, the number of students served sunk by nearly half a million.

In an August 2012 survey conducted by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, 66 of 78 colleges that responded reported having waitlists for fall classes. On average, there were 7,157 students waitlisted per college.

Michael Short/California Watch Community colleges have cut classes to deal with budget cuts. Berkeley City College student Clay Smith said last semester was the most hectic he’d seen. “There were at least 10 kids standing in every class,” he said. 

Berkeley City College student Clay Smith, 22, witnessed the effects of reduced class offerings firsthand. Last semester was the most hectic he’d ever seen.

“There were at least 10 kids standing in every class,” Smith said. “There’s people on the floor and in the hall. … I made sure to get to class 20 minutes early so I knew I had a seat.”

Smith needs one more business class to meet the requirements to transfer to a UC school. But he never thought it would take him three years to get here.

“I had no clue,” Smith said. “I didn’t think it was going to take this long of a journey.”

Obstacles to consolidation

The state Education Code makes it all but impossible for districts to achieve cost savings right away by merging operations.

Take the Napa Valley, Solano and Contra Costa community college districts, which together oversee five colleges. The district offices are within 15 to 25 miles of each other.

Combined, they serve about 81,000 students – fewer than at City College of San Francisco.

When you look at them together, Napa Valley, Solano and Contra Costa had three chief business officers, five directors of campus facilities, three athletic directors and three public relations chiefs in 2011. They also had two directors of information technology, chief financial aid officers and vice presidents of student success.

There were 12 key executive or administrative positions that clearly overlapped across all three districts and two other positions duplicated in 2 out of 3 districts.

Salaries and benefits for these 43 people totaled roughly $6.4 million. The districts employed more than 150 executives in total in 2010.

Some district officials questioned whether a district spanning three counties would reduce colleges’ ability to respond to local business needs.

Timothy Leong, spokesman for the Contra Costa Community College District, said that while his district sees jobs in the energy sector, Napa may see more in the agricultural or wine industries.

“Community colleges in those respective areas work closely with the businesses in order to meet those educational needs for their future workforce,” Leong said. “The question becomes, by proposed consolidation … will you be able to still meet the business needs and training needs for your students in the same way?”

Yulian Ligioso, vice president of finance and administration for Solano Community College, said a merger would entail many additional costs. For example, the districts would have to standardize their curriculums.

“While on the surface, I think it’s certainly not something you cannot do, there are many obstacles you’d have to address in trying to merge the institutions,” Ligioso said.

The districts have not discussed merging, but even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to immediately reduce duplicative positions. California’s Education Code prohibits districts from laying off nonacademic employees for two years following a merger.

That protection originates from a 1961 bill sponsored by the California School Employees Association, which ensured a year of job security for nonacademic employees after a merger. The union sponsored another bill in 1970 that pushed the protection to two years. 

Even before a merger could be approved, a litany of other financial, legal and political hurdles would stand in the way.

Several groups must sign off on the deal, including the community college system’s Board of Governors, a committee of K-12 school officials in every affected county and the merging districts’ boards of trustees – who which would be voting on whether to eliminate their own positions.

Voters in every affected county would have to approve the merger at the polls, too.

The colleges, meanwhile, would have to get approval from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. They would have to show that they could maintain the same quality of instruction and student support. The process entails legal review and a fee of $20,000.

The new district also would have to sort out multiple collective bargaining agreements, each with its own salary schedule.

Bill McGinnis, a trustee at the Butte-Glenn Community College District in Oroville, took a deeper look at these laws and regulations in 2011.

“It’s a very complicated process and a very costly process,” McGinnis said. “There’s no cost savings for at least two years. In order to make it work, you’d definitely need to have changes in the law.”

That’s not to say districts that currently operate multiple colleges are more efficient than single-college districts.

California Watch looked at three years of administrator-to-student ratios for each district. While the ratios varied, no clear pattern emerged that would explain why some districts had lots of administrators per student and others had very few. Districts with multiple colleges, for example, were no more likely than single-college districts to have a low administrator-to-student ratio.

Many community college officials point to this fact when they caution against merging districts. They often cite the state’s largest district, the nine-college, 230,000-student Los Angeles Community College District, as a highly bureaucratic organization they do not want to emulate.

“Mergers would be rather complicated legally, and we would have to be convinced that such mergers would bring about savings,” said Jack Scott, former chancellor of the California Community Colleges. “Unfortunately, there’s not evidence that (multicollege districts) operate more efficiently than some of the surrounding districts that are one-college districts.”

Small districts consider collaboration

Many of the state’s small districts are in precarious financial straits because budget cuts are making it increasingly difficult to support the administrative costs of running a district.

When statewide budget cuts hit, community colleges get lower enrollment targets – meaning fewer classes and student services.

But districts can scale down instructional and support services more easily than they can adjust the cost of administrative services such as payroll, accounting, information technology and institutional research, said Yuba Community College District Chancellor Doug Houston. That means courses and educational services end up on the chopping block first.

“We’re making the cuts by reducing our core academic functions, and we’re kind of chipping away at the margins of being more efficient with those noncore functions,” Houston said.

The legal and political obstacles involved in merging districts have stopped districts from getting past the most preliminary discussions about consolidating.

Houston stops short of advocating that small districts should merge to save money. He’s concerned that moving a district administration farther away would take something away from those communities.

 

But he has been working with a group of mostly small rural college districts to explore ways to share some of these administrative services, such as payroll services or server farms.

The group includes the Mendocino-Lake, Siskiyou Joint, Shasta-Tehama-Trinity Joint, Lassen, Feather River, Lake Tahoe, Monterey Peninsula, Butte-Glenn and Yuba districts in Northern California, plus the Copper Mountain, Barstow and Palo Verde college districts in the south.

“My fear is that for these smaller colleges that they’re already on the precipice, and that another round of cuts will put them in extreme jeopardy,” Houston said.

The group does not yet have an estimate of the potential savings districts could achieve. At Houston’s former district, the 5,000-student Lassen Community College District in Susanville, he estimated administrative costs made up 21 percent of the budget. He figures at least a quarter of that could be shaved through collaboration. 

Houston and Kindred Murillo, president of the Lake Tahoe Community College District, are talking about sharing one or more senior administrators in the future, even though the two district offices are 145 miles apart.

The districts’ immediate financial woes are only the short-term context for the push toward collaboration, however.

“The bigger context is that the paying public, quite legitimately, is skeptical as to how efficient we have been in public services and is demanding greater efficiency,” Houston said. “And I think legitimately so.”

California Watch reporter Kendall Taggart contributed to this story. This story was edited by Mark Katches. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.

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Community college boards lose power, stature as system changes

California community college trustees are entrusted with making sure districts meet the needs of the community. They help shape a district’s goals and review policies, but since 1978, they have not had control over revenues – the state does.

Carlos Puma/California Watch Copper Mountain is the second-smallest district in the state, with 3,000 students enrolled last year. 

The local community college district structure is in some ways a vestige of a different California.

The Little Hoover Commission, an independent state oversight agency, noted in a February 2012 report that the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 transferred control over revenues from local elected community college boards of trustees to the state, stripping governing boards of what some say was their essential power.

Local districts don’t set student fees; the Legislature does.

And while students used to need a permit to attend a community college in another district, since 1988, they’ve been free to attend any college in the state they choose, raising questions about the need for district boundaries at all.

A quarter of community college students attended colleges outside of their district in fall 2010, and more than 100,000 – about 7 percent – attended classes in multiple districts at the same time, according to state data.

Community college trustees are entrusted with making sure the districts meet the needs of the community. They help shape the district’s goals, and they review policies, sometimes updating or changing them – all in consultation with stakeholders such as faculty, staff and students.

Perhaps the most significant power local trustees hold is to hire – or fire – the district chancellor, who in turn is entrusted with recommending district policies. Trustees have the authority to approve or reject these proposed policies.

Most districts hold elections every two years for contested trustee positions. They also ask local voters to approve bond measures for construction or parcel taxes for additional services or classes. The districts must reimburse counties for the cost of these races. From 2006 to 2011, districts paid more than $30 million to reimburse counties for the cost of trustee elections alone.

Election results show voters care less about community college board races than they do about other contests. In November 2010, the Contra Costa Community College District’s Governing Board had two contested seats. But in both races, more than a quarter of eligible voters – nearly 35,000 – who cast ballots in the election chose not to vote at all on a trustee.

 

In September, the Field Poll surveyed 1,183 registered voters at the request of California Watch and found that 78 percent had little or no knowledge about district board elections. And while 46 percent of respondents said they think there is some value in having locally elected boards overseeing college districts, 63 percent said the districts should be consolidated if it saves money.

Pomona resident Dane Griffith, 48, one of the respondents to the Field Poll, said the number of districts should be reduced. He wondered what power boards have to help someone like his 18-year-old daughter, who couldn’t get into a single class this fall at Mt. San Antonio College.

“If you (have) more boards, is it going to be more effective, or is it going to add more gridlock or more expense?” Griffith said.

In all but a handful of districts, governing board members receive a small stipend for their service, ranging from $100 per month at the Mendocino-Lake Community College District to $2,000 per month at the Los Angeles Community College District.

The better perks are the district-paid health and welfare benefits offered to trustees. In some cases, just the trustees are covered; in other cases, they get coverage for dependents.

All but two of the state’s 72 community college districts – Cabrillo and Feather River – offer such benefits, and 84 percent of eligible trustees accept them. And it adds up. In 2011, districts paid more than $7 million in stipends and benefits for trustees.

In some cases, trustees opt in to the district-paid benefits even though they have jobs in the private sector. California Watch reviewed 16 community college districts and found that 41 of the 88 trustees receiving district-paid benefits in 2011 had jobs elsewhere.

The Mt. San Antonio Community College District paid $30,000 for board member Fred Chyr’s benefits in 2011, even though he has a full-time job as an associate vice president and chief marketing officer at the University of La Verne, a private four-year university. Chyr declined to comment for this story.

In Gary L. Woods’ case, the professor at Pasadena City College doubles as a board member for the Citrus Community College District. Woods gets health benefits from both districts. Pasadena paid about $16,000 last year, and Citrus paid about $17,000.

People with two health benefits policies can coordinate them so they pay less for their co-pays, deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses. Both college districts pay 100 percent of premiums, so the extra coverage does not cost Woods anything.

Woods, who earned $148,000 at Pasadena City College last year, could have turned down one of the policies to save one of the districts money, but he didn’t consider that.

“Why would I?” he said. “We put a lot of time in. I don’t see what’s wrong with the practice.”

An orientation guide for new trustees published by the Community College League of California estimates that trustees spend between two and 10 hours per week on trustee duties, such as reading materials and attending meetings. The league is a nonprofit advocacy organization whose members include district trustees and CEOs.

At Pasadena City College, board members and employees who opt out of the district-paid benefits can receive cash instead. Trustees Linda Wah and Anthony Fellow received $3,500 and $5,500 in cash, respectively, on top of their stipends in 2011 instead of certain health insurance benefits.

The district’s general counsel, Gail S. Cooper, said the district has to offer the same benefits to all participants. And all district employees have the option to receive cash instead of benefits if they show proof of insurance elsewhere.

She said district officials do not believe, however, that they have to offer health benefits to attract qualified trustees.

“Our trustees serve because they are dedicated to public higher education and student success,” she said in an email. “The dedication of the members of our Board of Trustees is not motivated by receipt of this modest benefit.”

Until the 1990s, community college board members could receive lifetime district-paid benefits after they left the board. California law now prohibits this for board members elected after January 1995, but some districts still are paying benefits to a few retired board members who were grandfathered in.

In its February 2012 report, the Little Hoover Commission said it ultimately saw great value in the role of local boards to advocate for their communities, despite the erosion of local control over the years.

The commission advocated keeping local boards while creating a stronger, more independent California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office to set priorities for the system. However, the commission also said college districts – especially small ones – could be more efficient if they combined administrative functions and coordinated more class offerings.

Advocates of local governing boards say the amount spent on trustee elections and salaries represents a tiny line item in the system’s $10 billion budget. They also question whether a district could cater to its local communities as aptly without a board of trustees in that area.

Bill Elliott, president of the board of trustees for the Feather River Community College District in Quincy, wondered whether a Sacramento-based board of trustees would have seen the value in establishing the college’s equine studies program.

“It’s easier for us, I think, for us to do it and say this program makes sense for the mountain area. We have the right person, let’s do it,” Elliott said.

But Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, said it’s possible to have local decision-making even in a large area with diverse communities. He cited his local district, the Ventura County Community College District, as an example.

That district serves the majority of Ventura County – roughly 1,900 square miles – and includes very different communities, from Oxnard to Moorpark.

“Even though that’s a very populous district, with three campuses and a couple satellite campuses, it is still very local decision-making,” Williams said.

Jack Scott, former chancellor of the California Community Colleges, said it’s unlikely the Legislature would ever eliminate locally elected boards. People would believe they were losing their right to elect local officials.

“Politically, if you were starting from scratch, how you would organize the governance of community colleges might be an open question,” Scott said. “But to completely uproot the present system seems unlikely.”

This story was edited by Mark Katches. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.

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How we analyzed community colleges’ administrative costs

To get a better idea of possible savings that could be achieved by consolidating executives at geographically close community college districts, we chose to dig in deeper on a group of 16 districts.

 

More than half of California’s 72 community college districts are within 20 miles of another district office.

Each district comes with a cadre of highly compensated executives who do the same thing as their counterpart with the same title at another district 10 or 15 miles away. In theory, geographically close districts could share a vice president of human resources or a chief business officer, among other positions.

To get a better idea of the possible savings such a move could achieve, we chose to dig in deeper on a group of 16 community college districts.

To choose the districts, we considered the availability of detailed payroll data, geographic proximity and district size. Although we requested the same detailed data from each district, some were unable or unwilling to provide the full scope weasked for. 

We began by applying a commonly used data-clustering algorithm to group districts into natural clusters where each district is within 20 miles of another. Sixclusters emerged, totaling 40 districts. 

We selected six districts from the biggest cluster, which is in Southern California. We looked at the Chaffey, Citrus and Mt. San Antonio community college districts in the greater Los Angeles area and the North Orange County, Rancho Santiago and Coast community college districts in the Orange County area. These districts were geographically close and had rich data.

We also chose three of 13 districts in the next biggest cluster, which is in the Bay Area: the Contra Costa, Napa Valley and Solano community college districts. These districts also were geographically close and had rich data.

Our reporting also led us to examine small districts, which have more administrative overhead per student than their bigger counterparts. We chose to look at four districts with the smallest number of students in Northern California – the Feather River, Lake Tahoe, Lassen and Siskiyou Joint community college districts ­– and three districts with the lowest enrollment in Southern California – the Copper Mountain, Imperial and Palo Verde community college districts – all of which provided the full scope of payroll data.

Field Poll

To get a sense of what Californians know about community college boards and districts – and how much they value them – California Watch commissioned a Field Poll in September. Nearly 1,200 California registered voters responded to the telephone survey.

We asked people how knowledgeable they were about matters relating to the community college or colleges in their area. The biggest slice, 38 percent of respondents, said they were not too knowledgeable. About 33 percent said they were somewhat knowledgeable, and 21 percent said they were not at all knowledgeable.

When we asked how knowledgeable people were about the candidates running for community college boards in recent elections, nearly half – 46 percent – said they were not at all knowledgeable. About 32 percent said they were not too knowledgeable. Four percent said they were very knowledgeable.

About 46 percent of people said they believed community college boards were somewhat valuable to the operations of a community college, while 20 percent said they believed boards were very valuable.

And the majority of respondents – 63 percent – thought that the number of local community college boards and districts should be reduced to save money, while 19 percent thought that having 72 different boards and districts was worth it.

The poll had a margin of error of no more than plus or minus 2.9 percentage points. Some totals may add up to more than 100 percent because of rounding. 

Here’s a look at the responses to our questions:

How knowledgeable would you say you are about matters relating to the community college or colleges in your area?

Very knowledgeable

7%

Somewhat knowledgeable

33%

Not too knowledgeable

38%

Not at all knowledgeable

21%

No opinion

1%

When voting in recent elections for the community college board in your area, how knowledgeable would you say you are about the candidates running for the community college board?

Very knowledgeable

4%

Somewhat knowledgeable

17%

Not too knowledgeable

32%

Not at all knowledgeable

46%

No opinion

1%

Haven't voted in these elections (volunteered)

1%

How valuable do you feel the local governing boards are to the operations of a community college?

Very valuable

20%

Somewhat valuable

46%

Not too valuable

13%

Not at all valuable

7%

No opinion

15%

Do you think that having 72 different locally elected community college boards and 72 district administrations around the state is worth the added expense needed to staff and oversee the community colleges, or do you think the number of local community college boards and districts should be reduced to save money?

Worth it

19%

Should be reduced to save money

63%

Depends

2%

No opinion

16%

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Defense contractors fear fiscal cliff spending cuts will strike bone

An estimated 1 in 4 jobs in San Diego County are tied to the military sector, and $32 billion in defense-related activities is linked to that area alone, more than the entire economic output of Panama.  

So what happens if tens of billions of dollars in defense spending is suddenly yanked? Defense contractors and other employers are worrying aloud about the answer as Congress and President Barack Obama quarrel over tax increases and budget cuts and the country edges closer to the so-called fiscal cliff.

The bureaucratic term for this doomsday scenario is sequestration, and while many have expected a smaller military, more profound downsizing has a lot of people nervous in California and elsewhere.

“The damage is already starting to happen,” said Chad Moutray, chief economist for the National Association of Manufacturers. “Many of our members are already seeing a slowdown in their sales, hiring and investment.”

Deep spending reductions were proposed last year as a way to force lawmakers and the president to address the federal government’s outsized budget deficit. If Congress and the White House take no action by Jan. 2, $500 billion in Defense Department cuts will automatically kick in over the next 10 years, with $55 billion of it expected in the first year.

 

The deadline that now looms has become part of a larger debate about defense spending. Obama already was eyeing $487 billion in cuts over the coming decade, and even some Republicans who have traditionally shielded the military’s bloat now say the Pentagon is due for a diet.

How the economy will react isn’t clear.

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Solano College to recruit higher-paying international students

Solano College will pay a consultant more than $100,000 over two years to recruit international students from Asia – at a time when the community colleges have undergone severe budget cuts and many in-state students are struggling to get the classes they need.

Solano College Superintendent-President Jowel Laguerre says the move will bring in additional revenues that will eventually help support the college’s bottom line. International students pay about $197 more per unit than local students at Solano.

But the academic senate has weighed in against the plan, saying it could have a negative effect on local students, was approved without adequate faculty input and might not pencil out financially.

The move comes as the University of California and California State University systems have increased the number of international and out-of-state students in an effort to increase tuition revenues.

The CSU system stoked controversy this year when officials announced they were closing spring enrollment for graduate programs for California residents but leaving the door open to out-of-state and international students, who pay higher fees.

 

And the UC system has made a contentious push to attract more international and out-of-state students to increase revenues. The system admitted nearly double the number of non-California residents for this fall as it did two years ago.

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Hearst Castle waived event fees as nearby parks struggled

While nearly 70 of California’s state parks fought to escape closure from budget cuts, the crown jewel of the park system – Hearst Castle – waived $611,000 in private event fees over the last decade for select individuals and organizations, including the politically connected.

Hearst Castle, the lavish 165-room estate on a San Simeon hill overlooking the Pacific coast and Highway 1, has been the venue of choice for 125 events since 2002, ranging from weddings to fundraisers, birthday bashes to cocktail parties.

Most of the excused events were hosted by local partnerships, but politics also played a role in deciding who had to pay full price and who didn’t, said Nick Franco, superintendent for the state Department of Parks and Recreation's San Luis Obispo Coast District.

More than a fifth of the total – $124,450 – was waived for the birthday party of former state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell and a charity race led by Maria Shriver while she was California's first lady. The race benefited an international nonprofit, Best Buddies.

 

The waived fees stood to benefit not only Hearst Castle, but also the 11 other parks in the San Luis Obispo Coast District.

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State park donors feel betrayed, want money back

Donors in the South Bay, angry over state mismanagement of park funds, are demanding the return of hundreds of thousands of dollars they gave to keep Northern California’s largest state park operating.

The Coe Park Preservation Fund, based in Scotts Valley, donated $279,000 earlier this year to prevent the closure of rugged, 87,000-acre Henry W. Coe State Park, about 30 miles south of San Jose. 

“We’re going to ask for the return of the $279,000 back to the Coe Park Preservation Fund,” said Dan McCranie, treasurer of the group’s board. 

If the money is returned, the group plans to offer refunds to its donors.

The state, however, says it has no obligation to refund the money. “As it stands, there is no legal mechanism to actually return the money,” said Richard Stapler, spokesman for the state Natural Resources Agency, which oversees the California Department of Parks and Recreation.

 

But in an email, Stapler wrote that the agency does not rule out the possibility of a compromise. “We are very eager to speak with the Coe folks,” he said.

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Colleges freeze, reduce tuition as public balks at further price increases

As an undergraduate at the UC Irvine, Christopher Campbell was almost forced to drop out by repeated double-digit increases in tuition – some in the middle of the academic year – to compensate for massive state budget cuts.

Campbell ultimately made it through and is starting law school at UC Irvine this fall. But he watched classmates driven out of college by the unpredictable midyear price increases.

Now he’s pushing an amendment to the California Constitution that would ban public universities from raising tuition for students after they’ve enrolled.

“Students and families are fed up,” Campbell said. “And that’s only going to get worse. As more and more students have to deal with these problems, it’s just going to keep building until the problem is fixed.”

 

After three decades of tuition hikes that have outpaced inflation and increases in family income, students, families, legislators and governing boards are demanding a halt.

“Enough is enough,” said Anne Mariucci, a member of the Arizona Board of Regents, which for the first time in 20 years has frozen in-state tuition at the University of Arizona and Arizona State University after increases over the past five years of 84 and 96 percent, respectively.

Some private universities, too, have agreed to stop raising their tuition, or even cut it, after being alarmed to discover their enrollments starting to slip.

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