Southwestern College law professor Richard Dittbenner says it took him more than a year to fully understand why the Chula Vista junior college has, for the past decade, remained one of the three lowest funded community colleges in the state.
A revenue-allocation plan, passed by the state Legislature in 1988, which Dittbenner describes as “so convoluted it defies understanding,” has unintentionally resulted in Southwestern, along with roughly half of California's 71 community college districts, scraping by on millions of dollars less each year than their better-funded peers.
The 42-year-old school with a student population of a little more than roughly 19,000 it is the only community college in the southern part of the county and ranks sixth in the nation for associate degrees awarded to minority students.
Southwestern gets roughly $46 million each year from the state. This equates to $3,506 per student, per year to cover all instructional and administrative costs. West Kern Community College district, near Bakersfield, is the highest-funded district in the state, receiving $8,209 for each of its 1,275 students. Los Angeles, the most populous community college district in California gets $3,962 for each of its 79,000 students. The state average is $3,764 per student.
If Southwestern received the state's average per-student funding, the school would get an additional $3,440,984 each year. If Southwestern were as fortunate as West Kern, the school would see an additional $62.7 million annually.
Funding inequity, Dittbenner said, has resulted in Southwestern getting by with smaller classrooms, fewer services for students and enrollment caps placed on high-demand programs such as nursing. “It's a formula that's broken and needs to be fixed,” he said of the state's community college funding structure. “We don't have the ability that other districts do to fully meet the needs of our community. That translates to a lower economic well-being in the community when you can't provide that kind of training.”
Southwestern's dilemma and West Kern's boon is the legacy of Assemblymember John Vasconcellos, a left-leaning Democrat and the author of AB 1725.
Passed by the Legislature in 1988, AB 1725 recognized California community colleges' role in fostering “a healthy and free, diverse and creative society.” The bill intended to establish a formula that would divvy up state money earmarked for community colleges in a way that fit each school's funding needs. Subsequently, schools that had been spending money efficiently looked, on paper, like they could get by on less. Districts with large campuses and costly programs were given a larger share of the funds.
And, while the bill contained a provision that-when the state had surplus money-would have equalized funding among the 71 districts, better-funded, larger districts such as Los Angeles and San Francisco have consistently lobbied to have that provision quashed, said Dittbenner.
“Any new money coming into the system that was supposed to be used to equalize, [other districts] bitterly fought that from happening,” he said. “The forces of the status quo argued against equalization even when there was extra money.”
Gov. Gray Davis has not been a friend of Southwestern, said Dittbenner; he's been won over by the influence of wealthier districts. On the governor's watch, the disparity in funding between the districts has only grown.
Republican Assemblymember Sharon Runner currently has a bill, introduced almost a year ago, awaiting approval that would, over a period of time, bring all under-funded community colleges up to the state average. The bill, AB 40, is currently locked up in committee hearings.
Since being elected to the governing board in November 2002, Southwestern Trustee Yolanda Salcido has parlayed her experience in community outreach to organize a group of Southwestern faculty, staff and students who plan to send a delegation to Sacramento as soon as the new governor is in place (Dittbenner said Republicans have tended to be more supportive of funding equalization).
Called Save Our Students, or S.O.S., the group has been raising money for the trip to the state capital, where they will meet with lawmakers and educate them about the impact funding inequity has had on the state's community colleges. Salcido said the group is also working on a campaign to encourage area residents to contact their state representatives. Southwestern is a central component of the community, she said, and when the school suffers, “it's going to impact the community at large. It's a domino effect.”
Funding inequity isn't Southwestern's only dilemma. This year, California community colleges saw a 9.4-percent reduction in funding, which was offset by a tuition increase from $11 per unit to $18. Southwestern was forced to cope with a $6.3 million budget reduction.
Southwestern spokesperson Nevada Smith said non-certificated staff and governing board members voluntarily took pay cuts ranging from 2 to 4 percent to help close the school's budget gap. Southwestern was one of the only community colleges in the state to do that. “There's a real communal spirit here,” said Smith.