State measure could help local community colleges

When the economy sours, a paradox arises: People go back to school, but community-college funding is slashed.

That is the quandary College of San Mateo President Michael Claire outlined recently when he explained why he said voters should approve Proposition 92 on Tuesday — a measure that would give community colleges $1 billion in extra funding during the next three years.

But Theresa Wheeler, spokeswoman for No on Prop 92, argues that the state should not spend a billion dollars that it doesn’t have as the economy flounders. The No on Prop 92 campaign is backed by such notables as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the California Teachers Union and the California National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

If approved, the proposition would increase state spending on community colleges by about $300 million a year and set fees at $15 per unit — a detail that would cost colleges about $70 million a year. Advocates say the cap on unit fees is crucial if the state wants to keep serving its poorest students.

Officials from public schools and universities oppose the measure because they fear it will steal their funding, Claire said. But San Mateo Community Colleges, he said, are paid more than a thousand dollars less per student than the lowest-funded public-school district in San Mateo County, and several thousands less than public universities.

But not everybody agrees Proposition 92 is the best way to help fix that problem. Wheeler pointed to the diverse organizations opposing the measure, including some that have a history of supporting community colleges.

“The problem is, this is just replacing one flawed policy with another flawed policy,” she said.

Claire said his school has been chronically underfunded and has had to turn students away already because demand outstrips funding. The college has had to limit enrollment in some of the most in-demand classes, such as English, math and the sciences,which are particularly popular at tech-oriented Peninsula schools.

“We’re squeezing dimes out of nickels,” he said.

Since the governor is asking for a 10 percent budget cut this year, classes will likely be more limited next semester, said Jeremy Ball, philosophy professor and president of the CSM Academic Senate.

“Our budget is about 95 percent attached to salaries, so whenever we take a cut of any sort, you got to cut sections,” he said. “As soon as [the economy] gets bad and people really need to access community colleges to retrain, we get hammered.”

kworth@examiner.com

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