Adding his voice to a chorus of protesters disagreeing with the Oxnard Union High School District's threat to drop adult education, a consultant for the state Department of Education has criticized the district, saying its position does not "make any sense."
Oxnard district officials, blaming a new state law that will slash the amount of money a district can charge its adult education program for overhead, did not include adult education in the 1993-94 budget because of an estimated $650,000 shortfall.
But Wolfgang von Sydow, who handles adult education at the state education department in Sacramento, disputed the district's calculations.
"I don't think they did a very good fiscal analysis," Von Sydow said.
At Wednesday night's school board meeting, an overflow crowd of more than 600 adult education students turned up to support the program, with dozens of students spilling onto the street outside the district board room and jamming an adjacent room to watch the meeting on closed-circuit television.
Many offered passionate pleas to the board, asking the members to spare adult education from budget cuts.
"The community needs the program," said Joyce Palmer, a 29-year-old nursing student. "There would be a big loss without it. I hope you can reconsider the budget."
Board member Steve Stocks said the turnout was "the biggest crowd we've ever had." However, board members did not discuss the issue because it was not on the meeting agenda.
Of the 230 districts in the state with adult education, Von Sydow said he believes Oxnard is the only one reacting to the new law by threatening to scrap its program, which serves 29,000 students.
"Besides being bad (public relations)," Von Sydow said, "it doesn't make any sense."
The district disagrees. By excluding adult education from the budget, the district was "trying to alert the board to a potentially dangerous thing," said Robert Brown, assistant superintendent in charge of business. "We have a major financial problem."
The program receives its annual $4.45 million in operating costs from federal and state grants, and last year paid the district $870,000 for overhead, including utilities and maintenance. Under the new law, the district would receive only $223,000, district officials estimate.
The district's threat has set off a firestorm of protest from students and faculty members in the adult education program. Last Saturday, an estimated 300 students attended a rally to save the program.
Echoing Von Sydow, leaders of the student protest have also questioned Brown's gloomy financial analysis. "He uses smoke and mirrors," said Don Berman, a 62-year-old Oxnard manufacturer whose wife attends adult school.
The new law is intended to stop districts from charging an excessive amount for overhead. But Berman and others, citing a 1989 state controller's audit, alleged that the district has used the program to subsidize its kindergarten through 12th-grade program. The district paid back $378,000 to the adult education program after the audit found that "an unreasonable amount" of overhead was charged to the program in the 1988-89 school year, according to the audit and district officials.
Brown said the allegation that the district overcharges the adult education program "is a ludicrous statement."
The amount of the potential adult school shortfall is also questioned by Mike Hernandez, principal of the Oxnard adult program. If an amendment to the law is passed, as expected, districts will be able to charge adult schools more for maintenance and facilities as long as they can document the charges. Hernandez estimates the district will lose no more than $375,000 to $400,000 if the law is amended.
"I don't know why they made the decision" not to include adult education in the budget, Hernandez said. "We were never involved. I think they just overreacted."
Brown, however, said protesters and the media have jumped to the wrong conclusion.
"We never recommended to the board to shut down the program," he said. "We just told the board we have a major problem. We're working very hard" to keep adult education.
The district also stands to lose state lottery funds if the adult program is scrapped. Oxnard received about $100,000 in adult-school lottery money this year, Brown said. Hernandez expects the figure to rise to more than $150,000 next year.
Should the district decide to drop adult education, "I doubt whether the Legislature will let them go ahead with it," Von Sydow said, explaining that the state would probably pass a law reinstating the program.
That would be "the perfect solution," Brown said. If the state mandates the continuation of the program, he said, it also has to pick up the costs.