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Community colleges hit by $149-million shortfall

Officials have little flexibility in responding to the latest cuts because classes are already underway. A decrease in fee revenues and more aid to students complicate financial problems.

February 22, 2012|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times
  • Sebrena Turner-Odom teaches an all-male English class at L.A. Southwest College.
Sebrena Turner-Odom teaches an all-male English class at L.A. Southwest… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

California community colleges were struggling Tuesday to absorb an unexpected $149-million budget shortfall that will mean more class cuts, layoffs, borrowing and probable elimination of summer programs affecting thousands of students.

In the latest fallout from California's ongoing fiscal crisis, the state's 112 community colleges reported that revenues from students' fees are $107 million below projections for the current fiscal year as more economically strapped students seek and receive fee waivers. In addition, property tax revenues also fell short of estimates by about $41 million.

The news has caused more angst and numbers-crunching in a system that has seen its budget slashed by $809 million since 2008. The new cuts pose a particular challenge because most colleges have begun spring session and have little flexibility to change course offerings or make other adjustments that could minimize the effects.

"This will result in colleges further reducing course sections, additional borrowing and staff reductions," Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott said in a statement. "As a state, we need to recognize the lasting damage that the disinvestment in higher education is having and commit to properly funding our colleges and universities."

Community colleges had expected to obtain about $456 million in fee revenues this year, but have collected only about $350 million to this point, said Dan Troy, vice chancellor for finance. The state raised students' fees to $36 per unit in 2011-12, up from $26 per unit the previous year. Fees will increase to $46 per unit this summer.

At the same time, however, the share of students receiving financial aid has climbed dramatically — from 28% in 2008 to 44% in 2010. Officials are still calculating the current year but expect the share to be even higher as unemployed workers seeking relief from the poor economy flock to community colleges to improve their job skills.

Scott said his office is meeting with legislators and the governor to get funding restored. But state finance officials cautioned that it is too early to make any decisions. Community colleges predicted a similar $50-million midyear deficit last year, but higher-than-anticipated property tax revenues covered the shortfall, Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said.

"Before we make any policy decisions we want to get the latest data available," Palmer said. "We don't want to respond to what is a point-in-time snapshot."

Many community college leaders, though, said they cannot wait for spring and summer budget deliberations and are already planning for cuts. The Los Angeles Community College District would lose an additional $13 million, and will probably use reserve funding to offset cuts at its nine campuses as well as consider a hiring freeze, Chancellor Daniel LaVista said.

"We will have to act on some of these possibilities in the next 30 days," LaVista said. "This additional cut is just terribly onerous."

Pasadena City College, which began its spring session this week, rushed to cut 56 classes and is considering closing the campus for spring break and part of the summer, President Mark W. Rocha said.

The school hopes the savings will allow it to restore some classes that students need to graduate, either during the final months of the academic year or over the summer. In addition, because the state plans to defer part of this year's funding until as late as October, the school's cash flow situation is so dire that it is preparing to borrow money to make its July payroll, Rocha said.

Campus leaders are trying to identify students who may lose financial aid because they cannot get the required number of units and perhaps offer them scholarships, student trustee Alexander Soto said.

"It's hard not to be frustrated by all of this," said Soto, 20, a cognitive science major. "To be cut in this way, not to mention the fee increase we'll be seeing, we also have to look at the state and I hope that students will take some of the frustration up to Sacramento."

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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