College District In Disarray, Board Hopeful Maintains

(October26)  By John Wurm
The San Bernardino County Community College District, which operates San Bernardino Valley and Crafton colleges and serves 13,000 full time students, faces dire fiscal and educational predicaments.  The prospects are dim, both short term and long term.  Like many governmental entities in California and San Bernardino County, the district is shortchanging those it is tasked with serving and has gone on a reckless spending spree.
Short term, the district has cut 20% of its enrollment over four years.  This year alone, it has cut 1,000 students.  In this year’s operating budget, the expenses approved by the district’s board exceed the revenue by $2,000,000.  Part of the problem is that the district is giving $1,000,000 to its TV station and $3,200,000 in raises to employees.  The district gave $1 million to its TV station even though the budget for the TV station is already at $4,000,000.  Why would the district throw so much money into its TV station while it is cutting 1,000 students?
Long term, the fiscal outlook is even worse.  The district has $1,250,000,000 in bond debt.  The payments average $34,600,000 each year for the next 36 years.  The bonds aren’t paid off until 2048.  The district has used capital appreciation bonds, which spread the payments over decades, much longer than a home loan. For instance, capital appreciation onds issued by the district raised $78,000,000 for building construction, but will cost $586,000,000 to repay.  The borrowing cost is about 7.5 times the amount of the principal amount.  By comparison, the repayment cost for a typical home loan is no more than 2.5 times the loan amount.
These types of bonds have been criticized by the Los Angeles County auditor, who states that the repayment cost should be no more than 4 times the principal amount.  Just recently, it was reported that the state treasurer, Bill Lockyer, condemned districts using capital appreciation bonds, stating the district boards that approved such bonds should be “voted out.”  This November, the voters of the district will have that chance as four incumbents are competing with 6 challengers for the four open board positions.
Despite already facing a crushing bond debt, the district still plans to issue another $240,000,000 in bonds.  These bonds are repaid by property tax dollars, $37.30 for every $100,000 in value of taxpayer’s homes and businesses.
The district’s academic practices have also been criticized by the community college state chancellor.  The district still offers “fun” classes like ceramics and walking that can be taken up to four semesters, or for two years.  The core mission of any community college is to get students ready for a four year college or provide occupational training so a student can get a good job.  Two years of walking does neither.  The district ignored the state chancellor’s directive.
The district’s professors and teachers are classified as “instructors”.  The district’s instructors average $79,900 for nine months work. Not too bad.  But the “instructors” at Cal State San Bernardino average $57,100.  Why does a junior college pay its instructors 38% more than the instructors at a four year college?
How does a small community college district get $1.25 billion in debt and lose 20% of its enrollment?  The answer, I believe, is a lack of leadership from the board. The district’s budget is over $260,000,000 annually.  Regular board meetings are only once a month.  That isn’t enough meetings to manage such a large budget.  The seven members act as a rubber stamp, ceremonial body.  For instance, in 2011 there were 199 spending votes, which the board approved.  Each vote was unanimous, with 1,393 votes to spend tax dollars – none opposed.  The board members are generally from the educational establishment, come from government and/or have been on the board for a long time.
The district encompasses San Bernardino, Colton, Rialto, Loma Linda, Grand Terrace, Redlands, Yucaipa, Highland and unincorporated areas such as  Lake Arrowhead, Crestline, Running Springs, Devore, Mentone and Big Bear.  There are 800,000 residents.  The population is about the same size as a Congressional district.
In addition to not holding enough board meetings to manage such a large budget, the board is structured so that the members are not held accountable for their actions.  The board is elected “at large,” meaning that the district’s voters have little chance to learn about basically anonymous  board members.   Breaking the district into seven voting districts, instead of a single “at large” district, would bring more accountability.  Also, a massive “at large” voting district is susceptible to a civil rights lawsuit because ethnic minorities can be underrepresented.  The district has been presented with a plan to create seven voting districts but has not moved forward with it.
This November 6, the voters have an opportunity to stop the decline of the district.  There’s no reason to allow the current board to load down the district and the taxpayers with another $240,000,000 in bonds when they are spending the money they have on classes like “walking” and pay their junior college instructors 38% more than the instructors at a four year college.
As a candidate for the board, I say “Enough is enough.”  I’m running for the board to stop the debt spiral and wasteful spending.  If I’m elected, I pledge not to cut students while giving money to the TV station and raises to employees.  If I’m elected, I’m going to ask the district’s finance staff to come up with a plan to restore the 1,000 students the district cut this year.  I’m a small business owner who knows what it takes to balance a budget.  I pledge to be a good steward of your tax dollars.  We can’t afford for San Bernardino Valley and Crafton colleges to fail.

John G. Wurm is an attorney from Lake Arrowhead and a candidate for the San Bernardino County Community College District Board of Trustees.

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