Berkeley City College student Clay Smith, 22, witnessed the effects of reduced class offerings firsthand. Last semester was the most hectic he’d ever seen.
“There were at least 10 kids standing in every class,” Smith said. “There’s people on the floor and in the hall. … I made sure to get to class 20 minutes early so I knew I had a seat.”
Smith needs one more business class to meet the requirements to transfer to a UC school. But he never thought it would take him three years to get here.
“I had no clue,” Smith said. “I didn’t think it was going to take this long of a journey.”
Obstacles to consolidation
The state Education Code makes it all but impossible for districts to achieve cost savings right away by merging operations.
Take the Napa Valley, Solano and Contra Costa community college districts, which together oversee five colleges. The district offices are within 15 to 25 miles of each other.
Combined, they serve about 81,000 students – fewer than at City College of San Francisco.
When you look at them together, Napa Valley, Solano and Contra Costa had three chief business officers, five directors of campus facilities, three athletic directors and three public relations chiefs in 2011. They also had two directors of information technology, chief financial aid officers and vice presidents of student success.
There were 12 key executive or administrative positions that clearly overlapped across all three districts and two other positions duplicated in 2 out of 3 districts.
Salaries and benefits for these 43 people totaled roughly $6.4 million. The districts employed more than 150 executives in total in 2010.
Some district officials questioned whether a district spanning three counties would reduce colleges’ ability to respond to local business needs.
Timothy Leong, spokesman for the Contra Costa Community College District, said that while his district sees jobs in the energy sector, Napa may see more in the agricultural or wine industries.
“Community colleges in those respective areas work closely with the businesses in order to meet those educational needs for their future workforce,” Leong said. “The question becomes, by proposed consolidation … will you be able to still meet the business needs and training needs for your students in the same way?”
Yulian Ligioso, vice president of finance and administration for Solano Community College, said a merger would entail many additional costs. For example, the districts would have to standardize their curriculums.
“While on the surface, I think it’s certainly not something you cannot do, there are many obstacles you’d have to address in trying to merge the institutions,” Ligioso said.
The districts have not discussed merging, but even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to immediately reduce duplicative positions. California’s Education Code prohibits districts from laying off nonacademic employees for two years following a merger.
That protection originates from a 1961 bill sponsored by the California School Employees Association, which ensured a year of job security for nonacademic employees after a merger. The union sponsored another bill in 1970 that pushed the protection to two years.
Even before a merger could be approved, a litany of other financial, legal and political hurdles would stand in the way.
Several groups must sign off on the deal, including the community college system’s Board of Governors, a committee of K-12 school officials in every affected county and the merging districts’ boards of trustees – who which would be voting on whether to eliminate their own positions.
Voters in every affected county would have to approve the merger at the polls, too.
The colleges, meanwhile, would have to get approval from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. They would have to show that they could maintain the same quality of instruction and student support. The process entails legal review and a fee of $20,000.
The new district also would have to sort out multiple collective bargaining agreements, each with its own salary schedule.
Bill McGinnis, a trustee at the Butte-Glenn Community College District in Oroville, took a deeper look at these laws and regulations in 2011.
“It’s a very complicated process and a very costly process,” McGinnis said. “There’s no cost savings for at least two years. In order to make it work, you’d definitely need to have changes in the law.”
That’s not to say districts that currently operate multiple colleges are more efficient than single-college districts.
California Watch looked at three years of administrator-to-student ratios for each district. While the ratios varied, no clear pattern emerged that would explain why some districts had lots of administrators per student and others had very few. Districts with multiple colleges, for example, were no more likely than single-college districts to have a low administrator-to-student ratio.
Many community college officials point to this fact when they caution against merging districts. They often cite the state’s largest district, the nine-college, 230,000-student Los Angeles Community College District, as a highly bureaucratic organization they do not want to emulate.
“Mergers would be rather complicated legally, and we would have to be convinced that such mergers would bring about savings,” said Jack Scott, former chancellor of the California Community Colleges. “Unfortunately, there’s not evidence that (multicollege districts) operate more efficiently than some of the surrounding districts that are one-college districts.”
Small districts consider collaboration
Many of the state’s small districts are in precarious financial straits because budget cuts are making it increasingly difficult to support the administrative costs of running a district.
When statewide budget cuts hit, community colleges get lower enrollment targets – meaning fewer classes and student services.
But districts can scale down instructional and support services more easily than they can adjust the cost of administrative services such as payroll, accounting, information technology and institutional research, said Yuba Community College District Chancellor Doug Houston. That means courses and educational services end up on the chopping block first.
“We’re making the cuts by reducing our core academic functions, and we’re kind of chipping away at the margins of being more efficient with those noncore functions,” Houston said.
The legal and political obstacles involved in merging districts have stopped districts from getting past the most preliminary discussions about consolidating.
Houston stops short of advocating that small districts should merge to save money. He’s concerned that moving a district administration farther away would take something away from those communities.
But he has been working with a group of mostly small rural college districts to explore ways to share some of these administrative services, such as payroll services or server farms.
The group includes the Mendocino-Lake, Siskiyou Joint, Shasta-Tehama-Trinity Joint, Lassen, Feather River, Lake Tahoe, Monterey Peninsula, Butte-Glenn and Yuba districts in Northern California, plus the Copper Mountain, Barstow and Palo Verde college districts in the south.
“My fear is that for these smaller colleges that they’re already on the precipice, and that another round of cuts will put them in extreme jeopardy,” Houston said.
The group does not yet have an estimate of the potential savings districts could achieve. At Houston’s former district, the 5,000-student Lassen Community College District in Susanville, he estimated administrative costs made up 21 percent of the budget. He figures at least a quarter of that could be shaved through collaboration.
Houston and Kindred Murillo, president of the Lake Tahoe Community College District, are talking about sharing one or more senior administrators in the future, even though the two district offices are 145 miles apart.
The districts’ immediate financial woes are only the short-term context for the push toward collaboration, however.
“The bigger context is that the paying public, quite legitimately, is skeptical as to how efficient we have been in public services and is demanding greater efficiency,” Houston said. “And I think legitimately so.”
California Watch reporter Kendall Taggart contributed to this story. This story was edited by Mark Katches. It was copy edited by Nikki Frick and Christine Lee.