Controversy over proposal at Santa Monica College

A proposal to charge more for popular classes at Santa Monica College was put on hold April 6 after opposition to the measure brought the college national attention.

Santa Monica College is facing the same challenges as Palomar College, trying to offer essential course sections in the face of dwindling state funding. To fight back, Santa Monica College devised the “Two-Tier Fee Plan”, a financially self-sufficient course, according to SMC spokesman Bruce Smith. If the proposal was implemented, it would have offered two separate groups of class sections: one at the state subsidized rate of $46 per unit, the other at $180 a unit.

When public opposition to the measure skyrocketed, the SMC Board of Trustees voted to put a hold on the proposal pending further discussion.

“[The proposal] came from the administration but I’m not sure if you could point to one person because the senior staff meets and they talk things over and things evolve,” Smith said. “We’ve had to cut 1,100 class sections since 2008 and the funding situation didn’t look like it was going to be getting any better.

“At best, we projected that 2012-13 would be the same, and that would be dependent on the November Tax Initiative being passed by the voters,” he added. “At any rate, that’s why we thought ‘Well, what can we do? How can we be creative? How can we generate new sources of revenue?’”

According to Smith, for many in the administration, the answer was the Two-Tier program, which had been discussed since 2010. The plan would have maintained the same number of state-subsidized class sections, but offered additional courses at the higher price, something many perceived as offering an unfair advantage to those who could afford it.

While the matter has not been endorsed at Palomar, not all students see it as a bad thing.

“If you are really desperate for these, it actually opens it up and says ‘Okay, if you want to graduate earlier, here you go,’” said Elliott Schultz, 23-year-old business finance major at Palomar. “I’d say it’s a good idea.”

SMC shared his sentiment. According to Smith, the plan would merely offer the class sections that students were demanding in a way that the school could afford.

“Most likely, if they could get it, students would go for the $46 a unit, obviously, but perhaps there would have been some students who would say ‘Hey, I just need to get in,’” Smith said. “I don’t think it would have opened any kind of bidding war because it’s likely that the regular classes would fill first and then whoever chose to, and it was completely a choice, could sign up for the self-funded classes.”

Smith added that school officials were also implementing measures to help pay for the increased tuition sections.

“We had gotten about a $250,000 donation and we’ve since gotten more, to establish a scholarship fund, and again our thinking was evolving but what we were thinking was that we would likely offer $300 scholarships to continuing students who met certain income criteria as well as a minimum GPA requirement,” Smith said.

The school’s Board of Trustees voted to hold the proposal following a message from California Community College Chancellor Jack Scott advising them to do so. Though the Chancellor’s office could not be reached for comment, a news release on the website said “The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office believes the two-tier fee program is not permissible under the California Education Code and has asked the California Attorney General’s Office for advice. “

Smith says that in response to the Chancellor’s statement, SMC has been putting together a comprehensive legal defense for the proposal and that he could see the matter eventually going to court.

At Palomar however, the reaction among the Governing Board has been clear-cut against the implementation of a similar process.

“I can’t see it becoming a statewide issue,” said Darrel McMullen, chairman of the Palomar Governing Board. “Even if they found some legislative way to get it approved, it would still be on a college approval basis and as long as I’m on the Board, it’s not going to happen.”

Though the exact details of the conversation are not public knowledge, the Chancellor’s office upheld their belief following counsel from the Attorney General.

Some believe the decision by the Board of Trustees was less dependent on the Chancellor’s statement and more an effort to improve public perception following an incident where students were pepper-sprayed at a protest.

In an interview with PressTV, student Marjohnny Torres-Nativi said “If we hadn’t spoken up for our rights, this meeting wouldn’t have been possible.  I fully believe that’s true. This meeting should have happened two months ago  if they really wanted to follow our schools shared governance democratic process. It’s happening afterwards, now that they have all TV watching them. They’re up for election—they want to look good.”

Two separate investigations into the incident are underway— both the SMC police department and a special panel appointed by the college president. According to the Santa Monica Fire Department, anywhere between 15 to 30 people were treated for pepper spray at the scene with another three going to the hospital.

“That will take some time for the investigation to develop fully and to make recommendations about future policies and so on,” Smith said. “But I can say that the initial investigation indicates there was one discharge of pepper spray by one officer.”

Though the proposal is temporarily on hold, the school maintains that it is legal and is trying to move the proposal forward through their shared governance process.


Author: Ian Hanner

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