Investigative report: What would happen if community college districts consolidated?

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. Photo by Carlos Puma/California Watch

By Erica Perez

California Watch

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.

But 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 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.

The full story is available online, but we’ve taken a step back and tried to answer a few questions that address some basic findings and what this means for students.

How much does the California community college system spend on administration?

Unlike the University of California and California State University systems, the state’s community colleges are governed by local boards of trustees. Each board oversees a district that includes one or more colleges.

Statewide, there are 72 districts overseeing 112 colleges. Of those districts, 49 oversee a single college, and 40 are within 20 miles of another district office.

In 2010, the community colleges reported spending at least $1.7 billion on top-level administration, including pay for district executives and the cost of 72 separate governing boards at each district. That’s 17 cents of every dollar spent.

How much of that spending could be cut if some of the districts merged, and what might the impact be?

It’s hard to say exactly how much money could be saved because it would depend on which districts decided to consolidate and which positions they determined could be eliminated.

But here’s one example of possible savings: The Riverside, Mt. San Jacinto and Desert community college districts, all in Riverside County, together 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 have one chancellor, one board and one head of each big administrative office, the savings would total $4.9 million.

In terms of impact, that money could, for example, pay for 960 additional class sections, assuming the classes were taught by adjunct faculty members.

What are the some of the pros and cons of consolidating districts?

The benefits of consolidating districts include the potential to save millions of dollars that could be redirected to the classroom.

Critics of the idea, such as Rancho Santiago Community College District spokeswoman Judy Iannaccone, argue that in order for colleges to understand and respond to the needs of the local community, it’s necessary to have a local board of trustees.

For example, if a district went from representing three or four cities to representing an entire county, the governing board might not be as able or willing to respond to local community needs.

On the other hand, Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, chairman of the Assembly Higher Education Committee, said even large districts with varied demographics and distinctly different communities, such as the Ventura County Community College District, maintain local decision-making.

In addition, some question whether large, consolidated districts could really operate with one chief human resources officer or one public relations chief – the idea being that merging districts would make these jobs more complicated and might not lead to as much savings as some might expect.

This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. More at californiawatch.org. Contact the reporter at eperez@cironline.org.

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