Scores of Ventura County community college students staged a sit-in Wednesday at the president's office at Oxnard College to protest sweeping cuts to programs and personnel to close a $7.5-million budget gap this year and next.
The demonstration came just hours after Ventura County Community College District trustees shuttered cafeteria services at all three campuses, eliminated or reduced nearly two dozen academic programs and laid off about 130 instructors, most of whom work part time. A few teachers will be out of work at week's end, while the rest will lose their jobs by June 30.
By 8 a.m., a small group of students began filtering into the office of Oxnard College President Lydia Ledesma-Reese, led by journalism students at Oxnard and Ventura colleges. Journalism departments and student newspapers at both campuses fell victim to budget cuts.
By noon, when Ledesma-Reese and district Chancellor Jim Meznek met with students, the crowd had swelled to about 100 people demanding that journalism and other key programs be spared.
The campus newspapers "serve not just the students who are enrolled [in journalism classes], they serve every student at these campuses," said Lara Shapiro-Snair, managing editor of the Ventura College Press. "It really needs to be looked at as a service that draws students to school."
Meznek replied that in such times of revenue shortfalls and budget deficits, the journalism program and others being cut simply don't have enough enrollment to keep them running.
Oxnard College journalism advisor Toni Allen was reassigned to Moorpark College and had her hours cut by two-thirds. Ventura College's advisor is set to retire this year.
"We have three newspapers in the district and we no longer feel we can support all of them," Meznek told students. "We have the passion but we don't have the enrollment."
The cuts handed down early Wednesday by the trustees are among the deepest in recent memory at the 32,000-student district. Officials blamed the budget shortfalls on declining enrollment at the campuses in Moorpark, Oxnard and Ventura. Student numbers have dropped from 36,135 in spring 2003 to 32,182 this semester.
That drop is attributed in large part to state budget cuts and increases in student fees, which went from $18 per unit last school year to $26 a unit this year.
Facing a $1.6-million budget gap this fiscal year and a nearly $6-million shortfall next year, trustees agreed to cut or reduce programs, including electronics, hotel management, theater arts and foreign language instruction. The losses total about 200 class sections, district Vice Chancellor Sue Johnson said.
Johnson, who oversees budget issues, said part of the board's action is intended to shift resources from low-enrollment programs to those with high demand.
She said the action also is meant to reverse unhealthy spending habits that have long plagued the district, such as tapping reserves to close budget gaps and spending money for anticipated enrollment growth before students sign up for classes.
"We really do need to become more financially stable than we have been in the past," she said.
Toward that end, board President Cheryl Heitmann said district officials in coming weeks will look for ways to save money by operating more efficiently. Heitmann added that she was moved by the hundreds of students, teachers and others who packed the board meeting Tuesday to shield their favorite programs from the budget ax.
That includes the journalism students, Heitmann said. In fact, trustees made a point of saying that while the journalism programs were being abolished, they wanted district officials to look for ways to keep the campus newspapers alive.
"We feel strongly that the campuses need to have this voice," she said.
Such assurances rang hollow with students crammed into the president's office at Oxnard College. Sporting stickers supporting advisor Allen and the campus newspapers, some students accused officials of targeting journalism because of newspaper articles that have been critical of the administration. Ledesma-Reese strongly denied those assertions.
"It doesn't seem like the administration likes us," said Keith Norris, managing editor of the Oxnard College Campus Observer. "We're sick of getting pushed around and we're not going to take it anymore."
At the end of the 1 1/2 -hour meeting, the student journalists and campus officials agreed to meet Friday to discuss ways to save the programs.
"We weren't even given a chance to see if we could do it on our own," Ventura College Press photo editor and advertising manager Stella Torino told officials. "It's not just a journalism program, it's a voice for all students and you are silencing that voice."