Anger simmers over UC Regents opposing community college fee cut

When the Board of Regents of the University of California voted to oppose the community colleges’ ballot plan to cut student fees, the word “hypocrisy” filled the air. Even in the Capitol’s overheated political environment, where today’s friends are tomorrow’s enemies and backs are stabbed with abandon, the regents’ decision to try to keep another higher educational institution from easing its students’ financial burden raised questions about UC—and about CSU.

The regents said they need to block the ballot initiative to protect UC’s funding, but not surprisingly, supporters of the community colleges were not pleased.

“And at the same time they are doing that, they approve double-digit administrative raises and excessive fees on their students. Some would say that is particularly amazing,” said Dennis Smith, spokesman for the California Federation of Teachers, the main financial backers of Proposition 92.

UC President Robert Dynes said Proposition 92 could hurt UC schools if community college fees go down while UC fees rise. “It’s important to support the needs of the community colleges. However, I couldn’t imagine coming to you as a president with a ballot motion that would enhance our position at the expense of a sister institution,” said UC President Robert Dynes at the time of the regents’ vote.

The issue is Proposition 92 on the Feb. 5 ballot. Placed before voters by the community colleges and their backers, it would set student fees at $15 per unit—now they are $20, reduced in January from $26—and guarantee a level of funding each year for the two-year schools. Voters approved guarantees for education funding nearly 20 years ago in Proposition 98 that included K-12 and community colleges, but the money pool usually gets raided.

Currently, the two-year schools are supposed to get 11 percent of education funding, with K-12 schools getting roughly 89 percent.  In two decades, since voters approved the guarantee in 1988, the community colleges have received the funding twice. By one estimate, they have lost about $4 billion, money that they would have received had the full guarantee been observed.

“A lot of folks in Sacramento have made promises to community colleges, and those promise have routinely been broken. But there is one thing that everyone can agree on, and that is that community colleges are notoriously underfunded,” said Andrew Acosta, a spokesman for the Proposition 92 campaign.

Apart from the policy issue of the fight over money for education is the perception that university administrators are protecting their turf at the expense of their students. The politics of the issue is tangled up in the rivalries between educational institutions and between unions.

For example, the UC regents — not known in the Capitol for their political acumen — took their opposition position at the same time they considered raising an array of administrators’ salaries, including the $320,000-a-year hiring from Maryland of a UC vice president for research and graduate studies with an extra $9,000 a year for a car, $25,000 in “transition costs” and an $80,000 relocation allowance.

Seventeen other UC administrators were up for major pay increases; all received salaries of more than $200,000, and several were more than $300,000. Similar increases were approved for several dozen others over the past few months, and the university’s handling of salaries, benefits and administrative perks has come under extensive scrutiny in recent years from the San Francisco Chronicle, among others.

Meanwhile, CSU eyed a 40 percent salary increase for its own administrative personnel — a move that brought down the wrath of students and faculty — and for 2007–08 approved a 10 percent, or $252, fee hike.

Even the language of UC’s resolution was galling to some. On the one hand it extolled the virtues of the community colleges — then it slammed the door.

“The University of California strongly supports the California Community Colleges. The community colleges’ mission is vital to educating the people of California,” the regents’ resolution said. Then it described Proposition 92 as “the latest in a series of ballot measures that dedicate or lock up an ever-greater amount and share of the General Fund.”

The initiative “reduces student fees for one segment of higher education without regard to the needs of all of higher education,” the resolution noted. “(It) could result in a reduction of the University’s state-funded budget, which in turn could result in an erosion of University programs and services.”

Earlier in the year, UC approved a 7 percent increase in student fees, or $435 annually for 2007–08, bringing the total to more than $7,300, depending on local campus charges. For the previous three years, after an agreement approved by CSU, UC and the Schwarzenegger administration in May 2004, UC boosted fees an average of 10 percent annually, including a 14 percent boost in 2004–05. Graduate fees were higher.

Those increases followed four consecutive years of fee hikes. The increases, conforming with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration's budget needs, bring the university closer to the national average for student costs, while the salary increases make the university competitive nationally, UC officials say.

“They (UC and CSU) knew full well when they signed that compact that they would have to tax their students,” Smith said.

As for the community colleges, they charge $20 per unit — it was reduced in January from $26 — or $240 for a full 12-unit load per semester, or about $500 annually, less than a tenth of UC’s charges.

Advocates for the 109-campus system, the largest college system in the nation with 2.6 million students, have proposed a ballot initiative that would cut the fees to $15 per unit and guarantee the schools an annual funding level.

UC believes its fee-increase burden on its students will be offset in large part by grants. CSU believes likewise.

But community colleges believe that fee increases translate into departing students. “We look at this as fixing a problem that will drive 115,000 students away from the community colleges over the next three years,” said Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California. “It is a real threat to California’s economic viability if we are going to be squeezing more students out of higher education.”

Whether proposed by the Schwarzenegger administration, the universities or the Legislature, “I think we’re looking at a dramatic fee increase,” Lay said. “People are talking privately about that right now. There is a historic debate over whether fees are good or bad, but what we do know is that the current fee policy is flawed.”

The California Teachers Association, which largely represents K-12 teachers and helped write the 1988 education funding protection initiative, also opposes Proposition 92, saying that the initiative is flawed and cuts into education resources.  The California Federation of Teachers, which has a large number of community college instructors, supports Proposition 92, as do the California Labor Federation and the California School Employees Association. The CTA and CFT have been at loggerheads before; Proposition 92 is just the latest flash point.

“We were shocked that the leadership of the CTA took an opposed position,” Smith said. “But that’s not unanimous at all among K-12 teachers, becaus
e they know that their students will become our students.”

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