Dozens of classes offered to Ventura County's 25,000 community college students this spring have been canceled due to low enrollment.
Administrators say the closures are routine adjustments to the thousands of hours of instruction offered every semester. But many students complain that the cuts are ill-planned and leave them unable to complete the requirements they need to earn degrees or transfer to a university.
"I needed this class to transfer," Oxnard College biology major Darren Hayes said after his five-unit calculus class was canceled. "We had 13 people in there, but they cut the class two days after school started."
Under an agreement with the union that represents district teachers, only classes that attract less than 15 students can be cut.
Once enrollment figures are completed after the two-week late-registration period, officials look at which courses lured the fewest students and close the sections they believe do not justify the cost.
For instance, only two people signed up for the journalism courses that produce the Campus Observer, Oxnard College's student paper. Consequently, for the first time in the school's 20-year history, no newspaper will be published.
"The irony is that of all the things newspaper advisers are vigilant about--keeping the newspaper alive, threats to free speech--it was low enrollment that did us in," journalism teacher Gary Morgan said.
"I took a bouquet of flowers and a black ribbon and hung them on the door," Morgan said.
Each district campus had class closures for the spring semester, the result of schedule changes made every semester as administrators grapple with limited budgets.
"We're playing that balancing game between what students are demonstrating their needs are and what resources we have to offer the class," said Larry Calderon, vice president of instruction at Oxnard College, which closed about 25 class sections this semester.
Moorpark College canceled the equivalent of six three-unit classes this semester, and Ventura College cut nearly 20 class sections, officials said.
"We want to be sure we have enough general education, so students can get their requirements in," said Darlene Pacheco, acting Moorpark College president.
But for some students, the best-planned schedules do not necessarily translate into lots of options.
"The registration process needs a lot of improvement," said Lance Lewis, student president at Moorpark College. "For example, the general ed classes are always full, and you have students trying to add when there's no space available."
Some governing board members are familiar with the continuing complaints over scheduling. Board President Timothy D. Hirschberg, who for years has requested improvements in class scheduling, said "administrative inertia" contributes to the problem.
"There hasn't been any clamor among the other board members, and the administration has successfully squelched any move to address my concerns over the last few years," Hirschberg said.
"I don't even feel they've recognized it" as a problem, he said of administrators. "They've been very self-satisfied and smug with the current status quo."
Trustee John D. Tallman, who helped write schedules when he was a Ventura College administrator, said requiring a set number of students per class is a bad idea.
"Fifteen is no magic number at all," he said. "Class sizes have to be assessed on what the class is. If it's last-semester calculus and you want to be a college, you keep it" despite low enrollment.
Also, Tallman said, students whose classes have been cut do not always sign up for another class. Often, he said, students will give up on the entire semester, costing the college enrollment money.
"Where the adjustment needs to be made is when you make the schedule for the next year," Tallman said. "We could be tighter in our scheduling. I would rather be tighter in our schedules than be canceling a class."
But administrators say they typically offer extra sections on certain subjects--knowing some will be canceled--so they can monitor enrollment.
"It gives me a chance to slowly evolve the schedule, instead of making major changes" after registration closes, said Lyn MacConnaire, Ventura College vice president of instruction. "You need that flexibility."
The spring schedule was less than flexible, however, for Hattie Cobb, a Ventura College student who plans to transfer to UC Berkeley.
"I had to rearrange my complete schedule," Cobb said after her third-semester sociology class was closed. "It was a big fiasco."
Cobb was lucky. She ended up adding a philosophy class that satisfies the transfer requirement. "It didn't hurt me in the long run," she said. "It was just a real inconvenience."
Roy Newman was not so fortunate. His late-morning Spanish class at Ventura College was cut. "I got stuck in the 7:30 class," he said. "I deliver pizzas until 1 or 2 in the morning. Getting up at 7 a.m. is really tough."
Student leaders plan to confront trustees at the March board meeting and request that better scheduling practices be implemented before summer and fall classes begin.
"My proposal is to lower the cap to 10 students for courses that are transferable," said Shawn Brennan, student president at Oxnard College.
"That way, night students going for an associate or bachelor's degree will have more of a chance to fulfill their goals," he said. "We've fielded many complaints from people."
MacConnaire said she and her counterparts do the best they can, juggling schedules and funds.
"You never know when you're going to get scrutiny from the chancellor, the board or reporters," MacConnaire said.
"You try to ignore the politics and go for the schedule that's going to meet all of the students' schedules, if you possibly can."