Calif. college votes to delay disputed 2-tier fees

Published April 7, 2012 1:09AM (EDT)

SANTA MONICA, Calif. (AP) — Trustees at a Southern California community college reversed course Friday on a plan to provide classes using a two-tiered fee scale, voting to cancel a summer pilot program after students were pepper-sprayed at a board meeting this week.

Santa Monica College's board of trustees voted 6-0 to halt implementation of the self-funded contract education program, which would have provided high-demand core courses at about four times the regular price. As a result, about 50 classes scheduled for this summer are now canceled.

The plan gained renewed attention this week after videos were posted online showing dozens of demonstrators struck with pepper spray Tuesday as they tried to push their way into a trustees meeting. The issue served as a rallying cry for community college students across the nation who believe they should have a free education.

The trustees had already voted last month in favor of the plan, arguing it was an alternative since state budget cuts didn't leave funding for any more classes. Some of them said after Friday's meeting that more input was needed from students and administrators before making a final decision.

"I think Tuesday night was a reminder and was a wake-up call for us as an institution that we needed to have a bigger conversation," said board chairman Margaret Quinones-Perez, who was the lone dissenting vote at last month's meeting. "We had to stop and look and see what was going on. Tuesday night did that, unfortunately."

There was a heavy police presence at the building where Friday's emergency meeting was held. Several dozen people waited in line to get inside, but there was no violence.

Students were encouraged by the board's decision but said they'll wait and see what happens next.

"It's a small victory," said Marjohnny Torres-Nativi, 22. "We know they are going to bring this forward again. We're hopefully all going to work together to find a solution."

College President Chui Tsang requested that the pilot program be postponed to gather more ideas. California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott had spoken with Tsang and had asked that the plan be put on hold, expressing concerns about its legality.

The school had said its lawyers concluded the plan is legal.

Scott praised Santa Monica College's decision Friday, saying the board has his "respect and appreciation."

"Although I disagreed with this proposal, I cannot fault college leaders for searching for new approaches to serve students hungry for the opportunity to receive a college education," Scott said in a written statement. "Tragically, we as a state have failed to properly fund community colleges, and our economy will suffer as a result."

Scott pledged to work with college leaders on strategies to improve access and success for all students.

Tsang's request to put the two-tier plan on hold also hinted at the college funding woes that prompted the proposal.

"I must warn that this postponement in no way addresses the state funding crisis and the lack of seats for our students to progress in a timely way," he said.

Tsang called Tuesday night's clash a "truly regrettable event" and said the college's police department will conduct an internal investigation and a panel will be appointed to conduct a separate review.

Students at Santa Monica College have struggled to complete their degrees in recent years as budget cuts have resulted in fewer classes. About 1,100 classes out of 7,430 have been slashed since 2008 at the campus.

Under the two-tier plan, a nonprofit foundation would be formed to offer courses for up to $600 each, or about $200 per unit.

School spokesman Bruce Smith said it had been estimated the courses would attract as many as 1,500 to 2,000 students. With a typical 3-unit course being $540, it could have generated as much as $1 million.

The extra courses at the higher rate would help students who were not able to get into the full, in-demand classes.

California community college budgets have seen more than $800 million in cuts over the past three years, causing them to turn away about 200,000 students and drastically cut course offerings.

The Santa Monica school has an enrollment of roughly 30,000 students.

Most students were opposed to the two-tier plan, arguing it would be a detriment to low-income students who couldn't afford the new classes. But some students and teachers supported the program.

"Doing nothing benefits no one," student D.J. Davids said.

Labeled as a way to privatize classes, the program was meant to be a modern-day Robin Hood where the rich would pay more money so the school could benefit, said trustee Rob Rader.

"We're desperately not trying to be the villains here," Rader said.

Other campuses are closely watching what happens with Santa Monica's program. Several colleges also have inquired about starting similar programs.

An Assembly bill last year would have allowed the higher-fee programs, but it did not pass. Fourteen colleges and college districts supported the measure.

By Salon Staff

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