David Bacon | The Human Face of Budget Cuts
Sunday 06 December 2009
by: David Bacon, t r u t h o u t | Op-Ed
Oakland, California - Cesar Cota was the first in his family to attend college. "Now it's hard to achieve my dream," he says, "because the state put higher fees on us, and cut services and classes." Cota, a student at Los Angeles City College, was encouraged by the internship program of the LA College Faculty Guild to describe the human cost of budget cuts in the community college system.
David Robinson, who's worked since he was 14, hoped he'd get automotive mechanic training, and a good job at the end of it. "But by cutting these programs and raising fees," he says, "you're cutting opportunity for a lot of people who need it."
Another endangered student is Tina Vinaja, a mother of three teenagers whose husband took a weekend job to help pay her tuition hikes. Monica Mejia, a single mom, wants to get out of the low-wage trap. "Without community college," she says, "I'll end up getting paid minimum wage. I can't afford the fee hikes. I can barely make ends meet now."
LA City College even suspended its sports programs for a year. The school had a legendary basketball program that gave low-income students a pathway out of poverty. JaQay Carlyle says City College basketball sent him to UC Davis and on to law school.
These students make up a small part of the picture of suffering engendered by the economic crisis in California's community college system. According to Marty Hittelman, president of the California Federation of Teachers and a former community college instructor, the system will turn away more than 250,000 students this year alone. "Where can they go?" he asks. "UC? CSU? The work force? None is a viable option - for both economic and political reasons." California has a 12 percent unemployment rate, one of the nation's highest. UC enrollment plunged by 2,300 students this fall, and the regents plan 10 percent tuition hikes in each of the next two years. The state universities dropped 40,000 students this year alone. UC fees have gone up 215 percent since 2000, and CSU fees 280 percent. Community college fees, once nonexistent, rose 30 percent just last year.
"As a result," Hittelman says, "hundreds of thousands of students enrolled in California community colleges are unable to get the classes they need and thousands of temporary faculty are without classes to teach. So, as in the universities, the student returns for paying higher fees are increased class size and fewer available classes."
Brenna Fluitt will face an especially difficult situation because of class cuts. Fluitt is a homeless student at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. "I'm not the only one," she says. "I see them on the campus a lot, although to most people, we tend to be kind of invisible."
Fluitt's been on the streets for three years. Part of what keeps her there is anxiety itself, which is so serious that she's classified as a disabled student. Clearly budget cuts produce even more anxiety. The two programs she depends on to keep in school, DSPS and EOPS, are both facing cuts. "The reality is that people who need these services won't be able to get them," she predicts. While she often says that a homeless life doesn't bother her, she sometimes lets the reality reveal itself. "I'm sick and tired of being homeless," she declares. "The cops harass you here, and it's a very expensive community to live in."
Fluitt sees education as her pathway to a good job, permanent housing, and a life off the streets. Right now, though, she lives in a van. She gets her mail at her parents' home, while other homeless students receive theirs at two local agencies that offer mail-receiving services to people who don't have a fixed address. "I need school," she explains. "Before I started, I felt I had a label on my forehead saying 'I'm homeless.' I just wanted to be by myself, and stay in the car."
Fluitt wants to study accounting, and knows that she could make a living with an AA degree if she can get through the next two years at Cuesta. "I like math and I'm good at it," she says, "and I find computer science easy for me as well." But when she went to get her classes this fall, she couldn't preregister and had to add them as she could get them. And she was lucky. Many other students found themselves turned away from overflowing classrooms. "I don't know what classes they'll cut next," she says. "One class I need is only given this fall, and they're cutting it next spring. I don't know if I'll be able to get what I need."
That insecurity is shared with teachers and classified workers as well. Emily Haraldson, a freeway flyer who teaches art history, found herself without one of her two jobs when the fall semester began. She got her first position as an instructor at Mount San Antonio College near Los Angeles in 2004, after getting her degree at Cal State Northridge. That gave her two classes. Then, in 2005, she got another three classes at Glendale Community College.
She tried working at the Carnegie Museum in Oxnard three years ago, but living in Los Angeles, curating in Oxnard, and teaching in Walnut led to putting 20,000 miles a year on her car. And she found that part-time community college positions, for all their problems, pay a lot better than museums.
This summer she got a letter from her department chair at Mount San Antonio College, noting that the college "was cutting 5 percent off the top," and telling her she might not get as many classes as she wanted. After sending her schedule in to her supervisor, however, she was told there were no classes available for her at all.
"That cut my income by a third right away," she says. "We fell a month behind on our mortgage, so we don't eat out, go to movies or rent DVDs. I didn't buy new clothes for my two boys, and don't have the money for preschool for the youngest." Fortunately, Haraldson's husband is a musician with a steady gig. That helped make up for the lack of preschool, and even more important, for the lack of money. "As it is, we're considering selling my car," she notes.
Haraldson sees students suffering the consequences as well. "At Glendale, I've had students begging to get into my classes. We can only accept three to five over our cap, and it's next to impossible to accommodate everybody."
It's hard to envision a future as a teacher in these circumstances, she says. "Teaching will always be part of my life - I'm called to do it. But I may not be doing it here. Full-time jobs are next to impossible to find, and now adjunct jobs are getting cut. Still, I can't complain. A lot of other people have it worse off."
One of them might be Karen Schadel, an administrative assistant to the dean of social sciences at Yuba College in Marysville, a farm town in the Sacramento River Valley. Schadel has not only done that job for 14 years - she practically invented it, or "massaged it," as she puts it. "I schedule 200 classes every semester," she explains. "I work with 15 full faculty members, and over 30 part-time instructors. The relations you form in this job are very strong. Now I've been told this job can be done by a secretary."
Schadel says the decision to eliminate jobs was very sudden. District administration announced they were cutting the positions of 56 classified employees and two managers. The Board of Trustees "rubber-stamped" the decision on October 14, she says.
These positions account for 590 years of service. There won't be a cashier, or an interpreter for disabled students, or a science lab technician. The transfer center career counselor, who's been there for 24 years and is fighting cancer, will be gone. The athletic facilities maintenance person, with 35 years, will be eliminated, along with three custodians. "This place is already dirty, and without them, it will be filthy," she predicts. "And if you call to get something cleaned, there won't be anyone to answer the phone."
The district has eliminated 56 units of classes this semester, and cut 59 units last semester, a process called "schedule compression."
Increasing the frustration, the district has refused to release any budget information in negotiations with Schadel's union, the California School Employees Association. "They tell us we don't need to see it," Schadel fumes. And while the state only mandates a 5 percent reserve, the district is insisting on upping that to 7 percent. "They're balancing their budget on classified employees," she declares. "I don't feel any confidence in their ability to made good decisions. If they won't show us the budget numbers, how do we know they're telling us the truth about the need to do all this?"
Susan Downing, the campus operation specialist for the college site located on nearby Beale Air Force Base, has similar doubts. "They're laying off all the staff that provide the services to a thousand students here," she says. "When I asked them what the plan was for continuing, they said there was none."
That could lead to elimination of the program itself, since the district has a memorandum of understanding with the military specifying the kinds of services it will provide to the currently enlisted personnel, their families, veterans and other civilians who take courses at the base. Some soldiers even take classes online while they're serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. The district pays nothing for the buildings and facilities it uses on base.
"I'm 57 years old, and I've been doing this job for 22 years," Downing says. "I have no retirement rights, so I'll be put on the street. My husband is a veteran disabled since 1990, and I survived cancer a year ago. It took all we had. Economically, this will put us in a very bad position. They're not only breaking our hearts with this, but they're breaking our spirit."
While Schadel will be able to bump a less senior employee, she has no guarantee that the second job won't be eliminated as well. "Bumping someone out makes me feel crummy to begin with," she says. "But my husband is disabled, and if that job goes away, we'll lose our house and car. Everything is up in the air right now. I'm a wreck. You can't talk to anyone for five minutes around here without them breaking down and crying. Morale is below zero."
That describes pretty well the feelings of community college teachers, workers and students throughout California. It is the human cost of budget cuts.