In summary

Changing some legal language from 2000 could free up $81 million for the system, but it still needs to find over a billion dollars in solutions.

California’s community colleges may be more than $1 billion dollars poorer next year, but $81 million that could save some classes from being cut are locked up in antiquated legal language, preventing colleges from tapping into desperately needed funds.

At issue is a batch of dollars reserved for “video disks, compact disks, optical disks, video and audiotapes” — cutting-edge technology in 2000 when Proposition 20 said a portion of the state’s lottery revenue has to go to instructional materials for community colleges and K-12 schools. The law’s language was last updated in 2011.

The narrow definition is preventing local community colleges from requesting the lottery funds out of fear they’ll run afoul of rules governing how the money can be spent. It adds insult to injury during a dire budget picture in which schools had to assume sudden expenses to transition virtually all coursework online in the face of steep cuts to their bottom line.

Changing that definition is part of a patchwork of recommendations from the Legislative Analyst’s Office aimed at accounting for $1.5 billion in cuts proposed by Gov. Gavin Newsom. 

The community college system asked the Legislature on Monday to tweak current law so that colleges can access the lottery money for more contemporary technology needs like laptops for students, virtual science labs and other tech tools, said Lizette Navarette, the vice chancellor for finance and facilities at California Community Colleges, in an interview with CalMatters.

As lawmakers and the governor race to pass a balanced budget, the community college system is lobbying hard to stanch the potential bleeding that could await them if Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget for next year becomes law. Navarette during a Monday Senate budget hearing said the cuts work out to a 13% reduction to what students would have gotten under a much rosier January budget proposal when the economy wasn’t battered by COVID-19.

Sen. Richard D. Roth, Democrat from Riverside, chair of the Senate subcommittee on education, said spending for community colleges in particular should be a priority and that he’s concerned about the cuts. “Community colleges frankly are the solution, for many anyway, to the ever-changing workplace,” Roth said. “We’re going to have to figure out a way to deal with this.”

The scythe to the community college’s state share doesn’t lob off spending evenly. Cuts to programs range from 8 percent for the largest share of state funds to nearly 60 percent for the Strong Workforce Program. 

The workforce program is typically funded at around $250 million annually. As a program which supports the development of career-technical courses that the community college system says are crucial during economic downturns, mitigating cuts to it is a priority. Additionally, its career-technical courses like nursing, manufacturing, and automotive repair “will have to be offered under social distancing requirements that may increase the costs,” Navarette said on Monday. The classes are already small; social distancing measures may require more course sections, which means more money spent on instruction and cleaning.

Newsom’s budget doesn’t just cut money from community colleges — it also proposes deferring $330 million colleges would get this year into next, and $662 million they’d receive next year to the following year. With less cash on hand, some colleges could struggle to make payroll if the deferred payments come later in the year rather than sooner. The chancellor of the Peralta Community College District, home to four community colleges in and around Oakland that has been struggling financially, said during a call with the governor’s budget officials in mid-May that the district has two months of cash flow before it wouldn’t be able to make payroll and benefits. Still, a veritable IOU is better than a full cut, Navarette told lawmakers Monday.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office pitched an alternative budget that could recover $700 million for community colleges — including loosening restrictions on the lottery funds. The plan calls for ending an apprenticeship start-up program that the LAO says shows poor results and gutting an older workforce development program that largely overlaps with one of the missions of the Strong Workforce. Those cuts would restore $38 million. It also proposes routing most of the K-12 Strong Workforce Program dollars — $72 million of $84 million — to the community college Strong Workforce Program, arguing that career-technical courses are “primarily expected to increase among adults returning to college rather than high school students.”

Also on the chopping block in the LAO’s proposal is Calbright College, the online community college that former Gov. Jerry Brown marshalled into existence but has been unpopular among faculty groups and numerous lawmakers. Cutting it would reroute $137 million back into the community college system.

“We should eliminate funding to Calbright entirely,” said Assemblyman Jose Medina, a Democrat from Riverside, chair of the higher education committee, during a Tuesday Assembly meeting in which the full chamber discussed the state budget and questioned several of Gov. Newsom’s economic assumptions. Keely Bosler, the governor’s finance director, said that while Calbright was created to be a self-paced, online solution to working students who can’t take classes during the day, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced all colleges to go online

“We will continue to evaluate the options in the coming weeks and months as we move forward,” she said.

The analyst’s office also suggested cutting $81 million for a tuition waiver program and proposed using $263 million in existing federal stimulus funds to plug the college system’s gap.

The community college system hasn’t taken a formal position on these proposals, Navarette said.

The fiscal saga resumes Thursday, when the Senate budget committee will finalize the upper chamber’s budget proposal. By then the public will have a clearer picture of what parts of Newsom’s budget lawmakers oppose.

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Mikhail Zinshteyn has been a higher education reporter since 2015. As a freelancer, he contributed to The Atlantic, The Hechinger Report, Inside Higher Ed and The 74. Previously, he was a reporter at EdSource...