Bumps, Bruises, and Tantrums!
Kristin M. Hollabaugh, Ph.D.
Provost, COS Hanford Educational Center
A couple of weeks ago at the grocery store, there was a young mother with her two darling children in front of me in line--one child about one and the other about three. The one year old had happily made a game of reaching around from the "seat" in the cart to the larger area. After all, he had found food (perceived as "toys") that could be thrown or dropped. The cans made a BIG sound (and provided a big giggle)...and the bread, well, not so much! The three year old took his place hanging on the cart, dodging the "toys," and questioning the experience. Phrases included: "WHY is this line so long?" "WHY do we have to come here?" "WHY can't we just go home?" "WHY do they have to take so long?" "WHY can't I get two of these candies...they are right here."
As I stood there watching (and I admit smiling because it was quite entertaining), I was tired for the mom. She was busily trying to put the groceries back in the cart, answer her other son's "why" questions, keep her one year old occupied, and eventually put the groceries on the conveyor belt--let alone answer her cell phone the three times it rang. A juggling act for sure! At the end of her transaction, she turned over her shoulder, smiled, and said to everyone around, "I apologize. It's been a long day for all of us."
After they were gone, and I was in the "conveyor belt process," my thoughts turned back to my day. It was a day that we learned of more budget cuts from the State. It was a day that I had met with a student who had planned to directly attend a four-year school after high school graduation, but because of financial impacts to the family, she and her family had changed their minds. It was a day that students were upset because they couldn't get the classes that they needed-and were on waitlists.
The more I thought, the more I empathized with the mom. No, not because the age span of my children is about the same--and I remember those grocery store trips, but because very much like the mom, we, at community colleges, are trying to make things "o.k." for those who rely on us--and those who are behind us and in front of us in line. We are trying to make things "o.k." for those people and organizations we affect. Like the mom, we are trying to put the "food" back in the cart--the educational "food" that budget cuts continue to throw out. Like the mom, as soon as we think we have everything under control, someone else takes a can and it makes a big thud. Like the mom, we are trying to answer the "WHY" to our current and prospective students. Like the mom, we often find ourselves apologizing to those around us for choices made by others - not choices we made (from rising tuition at all higher educational institutions at the same time as lower caps on student enrollments), but impact us...and, in turn, impact those around us.
Community college budgets are some of the most perplexing creatures I've seen. First, community colleges are limited on the number of students for which the State will pay. In this case, the grocery store may have more people lined up outside the doors, but someone has told the store managers they can only sell (or get paid for) so many products. Community Colleges are told by the State, we will pay for X number students at the rate of Y. The "rate of Y" is comprised of basically three things: tuition, local property taxes, and then the State makes up the difference which is different for every district depending on assessed valuation of property through property taxes. To complicate matters, some districts are what are called Basic Aid Districts--meaning the district receives more in property taxes than the rate of Y, so when State cuts are enacted, these districts are not touched. As such, these districts may even be able to expand during these times, and certainly not cut. In the current fiscal year, there are three basic aid districts (Marin, South Orange Coast, and Mira Costa) out of the 72 districts which represent 112 community colleges in California.
Not only does this funding process make it difficult when we are reliant on the State for both the X and the Y, it is further complicated by mid-year cuts-meaning we are notified in December or January of a cut for a budget that began the previous July. With a big portion of our budget in personnel (like many other service businesses), it is difficult, if not impossible, to cut services (and instruction) when the number of products you can sell is reduced. In our world, the State calls this "Workload Reduction" which basically means -- you are going to be paid for a smaller workload (i.e. funded students).
And the last big complication is the State's new funding "strategy" of deferring payment to the following year. It reminds me of Wimpy on the long-running Popeye comic strip, "I will gladly pay you on Tuesday for a Hamburger today." The State's version goes: I will gladly pay you next fiscal year for the students that I told you that you could educate this fiscal year.
In short, these days we, at community colleges, have much in common with the mom in front of me at the grocery store. Just as she asked for my patience, we ask for yours in this "can-dodging," "WHY?" environment. We promise we will make it as painless as we possibly can, but we will ALL probably have a few more bumps, bruises, and tantrums before it is all over!