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State’s community colleges spend millions on duplicative administrators

Richard Raasueld studies at Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree. The district broke from the Desert Community College District in 1999. The region’s two districts, with one college each, are among the state’s smallest.
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Richard Raasueld studies at Copper Mountain College in Joshua Tree. The district broke from the Desert Community College District in 1999. The region’s two districts, with one college each, are among the state’s smallest.
 
Positions remain even as huge budget shortfalls force reductions in core academic functions

The state’s 72 community college districts spend tens of millions of dollars on administrative positions that could be consolidated or shared by districts a short drive away, a California Watch analysis has found.

In the wake of huge budget shortfalls, California’s vast community college system has reduced its core academic functions – slashing millions of dollars by eliminating nearly a quarter of class sections, cutting services and laying off employees. At the start of the fall 2012 semester, more than 470,000 students had been waitlisted for classes at community colleges statewide. But millions of dollars still are spent on duplicative administrative costs.

More than half of the state’s community college districts are within 20 miles of another district. And the vast majority of those districts have a single college. If these districts shared administrators, they potentially could shave millions off their expenses.

Take the Riverside, Mt. San Jacinto and Desert community college districts, all in Riverside County. Together, they operate five colleges with three chancellor’s offices, three human resources departments, three finance offices, three facilities departments and three academic affairs offices, not to mention three boards of trustees.

The cost of employing the 15 executives who lead these departments, plus one or two support staff for each, totals nearly $6 million. The cost of running the three boards, including elections, legal support, stipends, benefits, support staff and travel expenses, equals nearly $1.7 million, records show.

The three districts employed more than 130 executives in total in 2010.

If the three districts could consolidate and whittle their bureaucracies down to one chancellor, one board and one head of each big administrative office, the savings would total $4.9 million – money that could, for example, pay for 960 additional class sections.

Riverside Community College District Chancellor Gregory Gray believes the savings could be even bigger.

“In this one district alone, you could easily save $5, $6, $7 million,” he said. “Multiply that up and down the state and you get a big number.”

Asked whether the system should consider merging some districts to save money, Gray didn’t hesitate. “Without a doubt and unquestionably, the answer to that is we should do that,” he said.

You could look at those facts, take note of the state’s revenue challenges and wonder why lawmakers aren’t already ordering cuts, mergers and cost savings.

But first you’d need a lesson on the way things operate in Sacramento.

Riverside Community College District Chancellor Gregory Gray said he thinks the state community college system should consider merging some districts to save money.
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Riverside Community College District Chancellor Gregory Gray said he thinks the state community college system should consider merging some districts to save money.

“It is extremely difficult for a local chancellor like myself to try and initiate this type of discussion unless it’s really starting from the top,” said Gray, noting that no one in the state Capitol is championing consolidation.

For many of the community college districts, the potential savings may never be realized because the system of local districts is so deeply entrenched. In fact, obscure statutes in the California Education Code make it all but impossible to save money through merging districts – at least in the short run.

Students have borne the brunt of cuts to the system. They have been slapped with fees that have risen 130 percent in the past five years and have been unable to get into the classes they need. But the status quo has been protected.

The state’s community college system isn’t the only place in California’s $92 billion budget where excess can be found. California Watch chose to zero in on the college system because of its sheer size and because it touches so many lives. Some 2.4 million students attend community college classes.

California’s community college system is the largest in the nation and the backbone of higher education in the state, serving the vast majority of the state’s college students at the lowest price with the greatest number of locations. The system is especially essential now, as President Barack Obama has pushed for greater resources for community colleges to shore up the country’s workforce through job training and education.

California Watch reporters examined parts of the state community college system’s bureaucracy to identify spending patterns and understand why reforms may prove elusive.

The 72 districts keep payroll and other data in different formats, which makes comparison difficult. So California Watch drilled down on 16 districts, taking into consideration the availability of detailed payroll data, geographic proximity and district size.  

The group of 16 districts had duplicative executives or managers in 21 positions, not including chancellors and presidents. A total of 253 individuals cost the districts $30 million in salaries and at least $7.9 million in benefits in 2011.

A broader analysis of the system revealed:

  • The state Education Code prevents districts from laying off any administrators for the first two years after merging, making it more difficult for districts to save money by consolidating.
  • The public appears open to change. California Watch commissioned a Field Poll that found an overwhelming majority favors consolidating community college administrative functions to save money.
  • As the ranks of elected community college trustees have swollen, their power and profile have diminished. The state pays for 442 community college district trustees, including an average annual cost of $5 million for elections. But the authority of these elected board members weakened significantly 35 years ago when voters approved Proposition 13, which transferred control over revenues from the boards of trustees to the state. 
  • The Field Poll conducted in the fall for California Watch found that the majority of respondents had little or no knowledge about district board elections.

Unlike the centrally managed systems for the California State University and University of California, community colleges sprouted up largely as extensions of high school districts. That helps explain why they’re organized into 72 locally governed bodies dotting the California terrain – each with its own bureaucracy.

In 2010, community colleges reported spending at least $1.7 billion on top-level administration, including pay for district executives and the cost of the 72 separate governing boards, according to a California Watch analysis of U.S. Department of Education data. The total cost of the system that year topped $10 billion.

But the 72 districts don’t all report administrative spending to the federal government in the same way. That makes it difficult to compare how much each district spends on bureaucracy or to compare the community college system to other higher education systems.

The Riverside Community College District, for example, included $3.5 million in state money it spent on enterprises such as parking and student activities. The Long Beach Community College District did not include that category of expenses.

The chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, said the state should consider district consolidation.

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