Budget Cuts: Students and Administrators Seek a Solution

While every possible measure is being made to prevent it from happening, if there continues to be even a moderate increase in expenses in the immediate future, Santa Monica College's reserve fund could run dry as soon as 2011.

    This is the worst-case scenario forecast by Bob Isomoto, Vice President of business administration at SMC, as the college braces itself against the next round of budget cuts and disruptions to student services as the impending state budget, slated for release Jan. 8, looms ominously on the horizon.

Signaling the state's $20.7 billion deficit as to why "it's going to get worse before it gets better," Isomoto warned that the various cutbacks and increases in enrollment fees, resulting from cuts to this year's budget, may be repeated next year. This could mean that tuition fees, currently $26 a unit, up from $20 a year ago, could see a further hike and the number of classes offered at SMC, already depleted, may face further reductions.

"The student fee increases are entirely out of our hands," said Isomoto, explaining how enrollment fees, a means of generating revenue for the state, are altered at the discretion of state legislature.

However, with the UCs facing their own budget woes, forcing university students back into the community college system, and with many workers laid-off in the economic down turn looking to augment their own qualifications, the reduction in classes couldn't come at a worse time with the numbers of students looking to enroll at SMC swelling rapidly.

"I don't know how we can escape the consequences of more cuts," said Randal Lawson, SMC executive vice president, predicting a similarly gloomy state of affairs over the next twelve months, at least. According to Lawson, the impact of more budget cuts could be compounded should SMC fail to receive federal funding next year. Offered as part of the economic stimulus package, the federal fund added $400,000 to this year's coffers, but without a comparable sum offered next year, this would make a balanced budget even harder to achieve.

Lawson was, nevertheless, hopeful that all categorically funded student service programs should escape further pruning. With their funding substantially reduced this year, Lawson expects programs such as EOPS and CalWORKs to avoid the brunt of the cuts next year.

 In Sacramento, Scott Lay, President of the Community College League of California (CCLC), a non-profit organization serving California's community college districts in governmental relations, is all too aware of the severity of the situation, but  he highlighted some of the efforts being taken to minimize the full impact of further cutbacks.

In an email to the Corsair, Lay said that it is possible that community colleges will escape further cuts because "States that received federal stimulus dollars maintain investment in higher education." Though he did warn that colleges delving too deeply into their one-time reserves would have to make significant cuts to align their budgets with the dollars the state is providing, especially if the recession proves to be a protracted affair.

Regarding student fee increases, Lay said that although further increases are likely, his organization is pursuing a number of avenues to offset the full impact of that outcome. One such proposal is a "cap on fees" at 10 units. This would mean no additional cost for students taking a class making them full-time, a strong indicator towards student success in degrees, certificates, and in the transfer process.

Lay also highlighted the CCLC's co-sponsorship in Proposition 92, which would have "tied fee increases to no more than the change in per capita personal income."  This is another measure that they are expected to bring to the table this year.

There is, however, one resource that Lay believes is woefully neglected, even in these times of financial hardship. The BOG Fee Waiver in California's community college system is the most generous financial aid process in the country, but according to Lay, "we leave tens, or even hundreds of millions of dollars on the table in state and federal aid, simply because students don't fill out federal financial aid forms."

Here at SMC, all departments have been looking at ways in which to reduce expenditures, and the Associated Students are no different. In fact, they have not only been minimizing their own costs with the implementation of a more sustainable work environment, but they have been exploring ways in which they are able to help all areas of the college.

According to AS President Cameron Henton, this year the AS has taken on partial funding of a vast number of special events, including conferences and seminars, in order to alleviate the pressure these events place on the college's budget. While this has helped to maintain the quality of services available to students, the AS also have a number of ideas to directly assist the college's faculty departments.

"The AS have a non-restricted rainy-day reserve fund of just over $1 million," said Henton, as he outlined the ways in which he hopes this money will be utilized for financial assistance, simultaneously helping to transform the college into a more sustainable campus.

One such idea is to offer a grant between $1,000 and $1,500 to any department that forms a task force to actively reduce the number of textbooks used in favor of alternative, electronic methods. This will not only offer an immediate cash injection to cash strapped departments, but by reducing textbook usage, it is also a long-term cost saving strategy.

Another such idea is to offer a grant of similar amount to those departments that put into effect the minimum level of change recommended by the Santa Monica Sustainable Works Business Greening program. By going to their website, and by altering their department to adhere to the minimal requirement of change to become a more sustainable workplace, they will also be putting into place measures that will reduce departmental costs in the long-term.

While there is no doubt things are going to remain tough for students and staff alike in the immediate future, and with the college's reserve fund potentially flat-lining in 2011, with people like Isomoto promising to "do whatever is necessary to not let that happen," one thing is for sure, the college is in the best possible hands to guide it through this turbulent period.