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Wholesale Reform Needed for Community Colleges

June 15, 2003|Phillip Knypstra | Orange resident Phillip Knypstra, a retired El Camino College administrator, taught business classes for 31 years.

Community colleges have been in the news since early spring, when Gov. Gray Davis threatened to raise the cost of attending classes and cut community college district budgets. And, since March 2002, more than two dozen districts have passed bond measures, to the tune of more than $5.2 billion.

The question now is whether district board members were justified in placing these bond issues on the ballot -- or if they were simply playing to the political powers that be.

In November, voters in the Rancho Santiago Community College District approved Measure E. The vote represents a huge mistake for district residents. Measure E authorized the district to issue $337 million in general obligation bonds -- bonds that become a lien against real property and will cause property taxes to increase every year for at least 37 years.

As political campaigns go, it wasn't much of a battle. When one side fights and the other does not, the outcome is seldom in doubt. Low voter turnout (43.6%) obviously didn't help, but nonvoters, too, will pay the price for their indifference.

Measure E proponents orchestrated a powerful campaign with the help of a political consulting firm and financing from individuals and organizations with a pecuniary interest in getting the measure passed. Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona's endorsement and vigorous campaigning for Measure E was quite effective. But I question the sheriff's objectivity because the measure included $15.5 million for a new Public Safety Institute he so desperately wanted.

As for organized opposition to Measure E, there was none. The sample ballot statement didn't even include an opposition argument. But there is another side to Measure E, and it deserves to be told.

While there were numerous arguments against Measure E, the district board mentioned none of them. I shall mention just one: residency requirements. This alone was enough to reject Measure E.

Unlike the K-12 schools that rigidly enforce residency requirements, the California community colleges, like the University of California and California State University systems, do not have a residency requirement. This means any California resident, foreign resident, or out-of-state resident can enroll in classes in the Rancho Santiago district. As a result, more than 40% of Rancho Santiago district students do not live in the district. At some programs, the percentage is much higher.

Consider the Fire Academy and Technology program. The vast majority of full-time-equivalent students enrolled each semester in the program don't live in the district. During the 2002-03 fiscal year, it had the equivalent of about 1,750 full-time students, making it the district's third-largest program.

None of the other community colleges in Orange County has a Fire Academy and Technology program. So those schools automatically refer interested students to Rancho Santiago. Naturally, a new $15.5-million Public Safety Institute will encourage even more students to enroll -- including many nonresidents.

The district board knew of the subsidy issue for nonresident students but chose to ignore it during the campaign. Was it right for the board to ask district taxpayers to pay for $337 million in general obligation bonds, plus an estimated $400 million in interest, to further subsidize these nonresident students? I think not.

California community colleges can't solve their long-term fiscal problems by having some districts pass local bond issues while others reject them. Sacramento will simply balance out district revenue, as has happened in the past, by taking from those districts that pass bond issues and giving the money to those who don't.

California's community colleges system is in a dysfunctional mess. The state has more control over the California community colleges than do the 72 community college district boards. That reduces local control to a myth, and community colleges are left to function in a twilight zone between state and local control. That creates turf fights, mismanagement and millions of wasted dollars.

The reality is that the California community colleges system, like the UC and the CSU systems, is a statewide institution with problems that demand a statewide solution. In the end, what we really need is wholesale reform and restructuring of the entire higher-education establishment in California.

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