“There’s no question that there (are) more individual districts than is efficient and, in many cases, the efficiencies that can be gained would mean more classes for students,” Williams said. “And that’s really the tragedy of the system, is the lack of funding and the lack of reform.”
However, while lawmakers can encourage a statewide examination into the costs and benefits of district unification – through studies and hearings – Williams said local leaders ultimately need to sign on to make such a move successful.
Creating a new district
To see how much cost a district structure can add, consider how much California paid when it built one from scratch.
The seeds of Copper Mountain College in the High Desert took root in 1967, when the Desert Community College District in Palm Desert began offering college classes at local schools in the Morongo Basin.
Community leaders in the area began to envision having their own full-fledged college. In 1970, the district bought land on the side of Copper Mountain in Joshua Tree with the idea of eventually building a campus there. And in 1977, voters elected the first Morongo Basin resident to the district board of trustees. Virnita McDonald advocated for a college at Copper Mountain.
A new foundation, the Friends of Copper Mountain College, began raising money for a building campaign. Its success led to the opening of the Copper Mountain campus in 1984.
Still, college leaders wanted independence from the Palm Desert district. They argued that their campus wasn’t getting its fair share of resources. They believed the district should have built the Copper Mountain campus sooner.
“We felt that we were significantly different from the Palm Desert community,” said Owen Gillick, who has been involved with Copper Mountain College since 1975 and recently retired from the district’s board of trustees. “We felt that even having one of five trustees residing here did not give … us the control over our destiny that we felt we deserved to have.”
Frustrated by what it saw as a lack of action by district leaders, the Friends of Copper Mountain College met with Republican state Sen. Jim Brulte in 1998, hoping for a political solution.
Brulte agreed to tackle the issue. A bill he introduced authorized a new, separately funded district – without needing the approval of voters in Palm Desert.
David Wolf, then the executive director of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, said in an interview that he was uncomfortable with the creation of a district of that size in that location because of obvious fiscal limitations.
Thomas Nussbaum, chancellor of the community college system at the time, also said he had concerns – not only about the extra cost, but also about the circumvention of the standard process for forming a district.
But the involvement of a powerful legislator made the move inevitable, they said.
Brulte “had already made up his mind on the subject and probably had the ability to pass whatever legislation he wanted to pass,” Nussbaum said.
In 1999, the bill became law. Almost overnight, the region went from having one college and one district to two colleges and two districts.
With the new designation came new trappings. The district created two new jobs that mirrored positions at Palm Desert’s College of the Desert: a chief human resources officer and a chief business officer. Copper Mountain also hired a director of fiscal services, promoted the provost to CEO and promoted a professor to a position as chief instructional officer. A new local board was elected. State budgets provided $3 million in the first two years to foot the bill for the transition.
From 1998, before the secession, to 2002, four years after the split, the cost of top-level administration for College of the Desert and Copper Mountain College doubled, growing at twice the rate of the system as a whole. Copper Mountain currently has nine administrators and faculty who make more than $100,000 per year.
Both districts are among California’s smallest. The Desert Community College District enrolls roughly 13,000 students. Copper Mountain, the spinoff, is the second-tiniest district in the state, with 3,000 students enrolled last year.
Tiny districts are, by nature, inefficient. In fact, their fixed costs are so high that the state funding formula adds on extra money for them. As a result, per-student funding at Copper Mountain in 2010 was about $8,200 – more than 40 percent higher than the state average of $5,700.
“They’ve got to have a board, they’ve got to have a basic campus, they’ve got to have a basic administration, they’ve got to have a basic faculty even if their class size is very small,” Wolf said. “So why would you create something like this … when there’s 55 miles away a great big campus that provides everything?”
Gillick did not dispute that forming a new small district entailed significant costs. But he said consolidating Copper Mountain with a neighboring district would be an “unsuccessful implant.”
“These small things (districts) are costly, but they have a value that can’t be measured in bucks,” he said.
Brulte, now the California Republican Party chairman, said there was no requirement in the law that the new district add more administrators. The move had a positive impact in the area, he said.
“At the end of the day, additional resources went to Copper Mountain, and it eliminated a tremendous source of conflict within the Morongo Basin,” he said. “The people of the Morongo Basin got to have control of the college district in their community.”
When you look at a map of California’s community college districts, the dots tend to cluster. More than half of the districts are within 20 miles of at least one other community college district.
Each district comes with a cadre of highly compensated executives who do the same thing as their counterpart with the same title at a district 10 or 15 miles away. In theory, geographically close districts could share a vice president of human resources or a chief business officer.
It’s unclear how much could be cut, but the community college system spends at least 17 cents of every dollar on top-level administrative costs.
California Watch analyzed payroll data for 16 districts. Combined, the districts – a mix of small and larger ones – had 18 directors of public relations, 21 directors of campus facilities and 12 institutional research chiefs. Not including the district superintendents or college presidents, the districts had some level of overlap in 21 executive or management positions.
Meanwhile, colleges have dealt with budget cuts by cutting classes. Before last year’s passage of Proposition 30, which temporarily increases income and sales taxes to fund education, funding for community colleges had decreased by $809 million, or 12 percent, since 2008-09.
In that time period, the number of students served sunk by nearly half a million.
In an August 2012 survey conducted by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, 66 of 78 colleges that responded reported having waitlists for fall classes. On average, there were 7,157 students waitlisted per college.