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Audit Finds Improper Claims for Courses Offering College Credit

Community colleges may have received millions from the state, some for classes that were really sports practices.

June 11, 2003|Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writer

Community college districts in California improperly claimed as much as $36 million in state funds last year for classes that provided college credit to high school students, according to a preliminary report prepared for state legislators.

The analysis by the California Community Colleges chancellor's office found that such dual-enrollment classes, largely sports programs, are plagued by problems ranging from record-keeping shortcomings to possible fraud.

The report focused on courses known as concurrent enrollment or bridge programs that, under state law, are commonly offered on community college or high school campuses. The original intent was to offer extra academic opportunities for high school students who are ready for college coursework.

Articles in the Orange County Register in December, however, reported that large numbers of high school athletes were enrolled in college credit physical education courses that were nothing more than regular high school sports practices. The newspaper found that some community colleges, as a result, were improperly inflating their enrollments, and wrongly pocketing extra state tax dollars.

In some cases, coaches reportedly coerced students into signing up for the bogus community college courses. That, in turn, allowed the coaches to double dip by receiving pay for their work from both the high schools and the community colleges, according to the Register.

The revelations triggered a review by the office of California Community College Chancellor Thomas J. Nussbaum. A preliminary copy of the findings was delivered to state legislators this week.

The report downplays the extent of possible fraud, saying: "Our investigations to date lead us to believe that such violations are very limited or isolated."

At the same time, the preliminary analysis said that there were widespread examples of programs that failed to meet state requirements for obtaining permission from students' parents or high school principals for the courses. In other cases, the report said community colleges had failed to make sure that the classes were of college-level rigor and were offered to the public.

It also cited the rapid expansion, starting in the 1997-1998 fiscal year, in college credit physical education courses offered to high school students. In an interview Tuesday, Nussbaum said that was legal, but showed poor judgment and may have been done largely to claim more state money.

The report turned up problems with programs in about half of the state's 72 community college systems and singled out 18 districts as having questionable enrollments requiring further investigation. The community college systems deemed to have the largest numbers of students in these questionable programs are mainly in Southern California, including the North Orange County, Mt. San Antonio, Coast, Santa Clarita, Compton and Ventura districts.

Nussbaum said the most serious investigation by his office is underway in the North Orange County district, where a parent filed a complaint alleging abuses in the bridge program.

Donna Hatchett, a spokeswoman for the Anaheim-based district, said district officials believe that their programs were legal but that they had eliminated all of the physical education bridge courses this spring, after questions were raised. She said the district, which includes Cypress College and Fullerton College, continues to offer bridge courses in such areas as theater, dance and music.

Nussbaum said the nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District also would probably be the target of a follow-up review by his office. He said, however, that there were no allegations of serious abuses by the district. Rather, he said, the follow-up review might be needed because the district's auditors had been able to check only a sampling of the course offerings.

Still, Nussbaum noted that the Los Angeles district had agreed to take a funding cut totaling $510,000 for programs that violated technical requirements, such as making sure that they were publicized.

The report fueled debate in Sacramento about whether the state controller's office should do a full audit of the community colleges' practices, instead of relying on the chancellor's office review. Some state officials expressed concern that the study might have understated the financial consequences.

Anita Gore of the California Department of Finance, said the report "confirms that there is a problem, but it doesn't necessarily quantify it."

For that reason, she said, Gov. Gray Davis would ask the Legislature to approve a formal audit of the colleges.

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