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Photograph by Paul Meyers

Behind Closed Doors: Metriculation services, like student support and counseling, will likely be the first services to go.

Failing Grades

It's back to red ink for a community college system that just got back on its feet

By Loren Stein

Foothill-De Anza Community College District Chancellor Leo Chavez faces a dilemma. After months of planning, his budget has to be locked in by September, the start of the school year, while state pols may not be able to finalize their budget until late fall, if then. Which means a lot of guesswork, a lot of "ifs." With a $23.6 billion state budget shortfall, the picture in April looked gloomy, especially with funding for Prop. 98--the 1988 ballot measure that earmarks 35 percent of the state's general fund for public schools--hanging in the balance.

How community colleges will fare is "the question of the day," Chavez said before Gov. Davis released his May budget revision. "With elections in November, the state budget plan may not stand the test of time, and the projections we used to build our budget will not be valid. With a $200 million operating budget, I just don't know how to prepare for that type of variance."

In Davis' new budget plan, community colleges emerged relatively unscathed--though, as Chavez says, there are no guarantees. Davis met the Prop. 98 funding requirement to the tune of $47.2 billion by using school funds that hadn't been spent from the current year (a decline in personal income levels translated into a $830 million shortfall). "Basically, it's a good news/bad news scenario, but it could have been much worse," says Chavez.

Most of the $109.3 million budget cuts proposed in January held steady in Davis' current plan, though he partially restored community college funding for CalWORKs (the state's version of welfare-to-work) students by raiding the cost-of-living adjustment. Cuts in other programs (such as matriculation services --which include student support and counseling--and faculty and staff development) when combined with flat enrollment-growth dollars and other cost pressures (such as sharp a rise in health benefits) mean spending per pupil will fall at least $50, says Chavez. With 34,000 full-time students at Foothill-De Anza, this amounts to a nearly $2 million budget cut, he says. (The colleges also have 45,000 part-timers.) Reducing enrollment and scaling back new hires may be unavoidable.

Foothill-De Anza is just now recovering from the deep budget cuts of the early 1990s, says Chavez; currently, staffing and enrollment levels have reached 1993 levels. Yet with the recent collapse of the economy, California's 108 community colleges, serving 2.5 million people each year, are more important than ever. "We're part of the primary drivers of economic development; we fuel the economy," says Chavez. "Now that we're in a recession, [Foothill-De Anza] is going to be handicapped in its ability to retrain and produce skilled workers."

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From the May 30-June 5, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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