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Santa Monica College Seeks Options to Program Chancellor Contends is Illegal  


By Jason Islas
Lookout Staff

April 18, 2012 -- Santa Monica College is still looking for a way to keep classes going after postponing a controversial two-tier tuition program the State Chancellor contends is illegal.

The California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office said this week that the State Attorney General advised it that the program -- which would have offered some high-demand classes for $180 per unit, instead of the standard $46 -- violates the State education code. There was no opinion issued.

SMC officials said Wednesday that the college has not received any communication from the State Attorney General's Office or the Chancellor's Office.

"We look forward to them sharing their legal analysis with the College," said SMC spokesman Bruce Smith. "We also look forward to continuing the dialogue with the Chancellor's Office on ways community colleges can increase student access at a time of devastating state budget cuts."

The Chancellor didn't ask for a formal legal opinion from the State Attorney General, said spokeswoman Paige Marlatt Door. She added that after conversations with the Attorney General, the Chancellor's office remains confident in “our opinion that (the pilot program) is in violation of the Education Code.”

SMC officials, however, say that they are still confident in their own interpretation, which holds that the proposed program is, indeed, possible under the contractual education provision of the Education Code.

The provision "allows community colleges to allow contract education programs to nonprofit corporations," SMC's legal counsel Robert Myers wrote in a March 23 letter to the Chancellor's office. "There is no statutory limitation on what these corporations can do with the seats."  

 The chancellor's office holds that the code restricts such programs to employers or industries that request training or classes for employees

SMC's proposed “enrollment contract educational program” creates a non-profit organization designed to offer classes with the highest demand on SMC's campus that were discontinued during the winter and summer due to State budget cuts.  The program will have no effect on the regular spring and fall sessions.

The self-funding program would allow students who aren't able to get into the courses during regular sessions to take the same classes with SMC professors. But because the non-profit institution would not benefit from State subsidies, it would have to pay for the full cost of holding the classes itself.

SMC's Board of Trustees cancelled the program after Chancellor Jack Scott expressed concerns in the wake of a board meeting that saw a campus security guard pepper spray a crowd of students who burst into the boardroom last month.

The District Planning and Advisory Council – a twelve-member council of members of the Student Body, classified staff, faculty, and administrators – is currently reviewing options to restore classes, Smith said.

“We're moving ahead to see what to do next,” he said, adding that the future of the dormant program remains uncertain.

By early fall, the District Planning and Advisory Council will make a recommendation to College President Chui L. Tsang about how to proceed, Smith said. Tsang would then take the recommendation to the Board of Trustees.

Smith did emphasize that there is a sense of urgency.

“We're facing the very real possibility that the winter classes will have to be canceled” as a result of the funding situation, he said, adding that “we won't have to make any hard and fast decisions until early next school year.”

The Chancellor's office is sympathetic to SMC's troubles, Door said. The whole state system has lost $809 million since 2010, she said.

“We expect that number could go higher,” Door said.

In addition, the community college system is facing an all-time high enrolment, with some 2.9 million students, Door said. She called the current situation a “perfect storm.”

But, she added, the Chancellor's office does not think that SMC's proposed two-tier system is the answer to the problem, since it sets a precedent the office is not comfortable with.

“The concern is equality for the students,” she said.

However, as access to high-demand classes begins to shrink, the cost of that equality could be that fewer students would be able to graduate on time, according to SMCes.


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