California Puts Off Audit of Community Colleges’
By Marla Jo FisherSACRAMENTO, Calif.
California officials are shifting gears on their previous plans to investigate physical-education programs for high-school students operated by the state’s 108 community colleges, some of which were operating illegally.
California’s Department of Finance initially said it would audit the courses, called bridge programs, to determine how many were violating state law. The department hasn’t yet launched an investigation, however, saying the earliest one could begin this fall, after the state budget is signed. State Director of Finance Steve Peace said his office intends to conduct a full, independent audit of the community colleges’ programs.
In the meantime, aside from a few planned spot checks, the nation’s largest higher-education system will be free on its own recognizance.
In December, the Orange County Register reported that over the past decade, high-school students, sometimes pressured by their high-school coaches, signed up for college physical-education classes that were nothing more than regular practices or off-season workouts at high-school campuses. The colleges received millions of dollars in state funds for the enrollment boost the students provided; the students earned college credit; and the coaches received extra pay, all under the guise of concurrent-enrollment bridge programs.
By law, community colleges can’t collect state funds for courses that aren’t open and advertised to the general public. All courses must have rigorous college content, and colleges must also obtain permission from parents and principals before enrolling any high-school students.
Gov. Gray Davis has proposed slashing $80 million from next year’s statewide budget — the amount it costs to operate the bridge programs — pending an audit.
Some community-college advocates have argued that the state’s community colleges did not receive enough funding overall to pay for their enrollment growth last year, so they shouldn’t have to pay back any money for classes they offered that might now be considered illegal.
Meanwhile, the California Legislature will soon receive the results of the state chancellor’s survey, which was designed to determine how many colleges were illegally operating bridge programs.
Districts that operated the programs had until April 7 to complete the self-reporting survey, which focused on about 8,500 course sections statewide in which at least half of those enrolled were high-school students.
“We will be doing some spot auditing and going down to selected districts to look at validation,” state Chancellor Thomas Nussbaum says. “We are looking at the results now, and then (the state Department of) Finance will be over here looking at them.”
In the survey, college administrators were asked to state, under penalty of perjury, whether they enrolled high-school students in the classes legally.
Nussbaum said his office asked colleges to provide course schedules, and to certify that parental-permission slips were signed and that courses were advertised and available to the general public, as required by state law.
Results should be provided to legislators in about a month, he said.
Nussbaum said he believed that the surveys wouldn’t show widespread violations of regulations that require college courses offered to high-school students to have advanced content.
However, he said, “I think we’re going to find significant numbers of P.E. programs that, for all intents and purposes, were not advertised properly.”
He also predicted that the survey would show that “the courses were really conducted, the students were there, and there wasn’t any fraud going on — but there (was) too much” enrollment in the bridge programs.
The chancellor’s office plans to make a report to the Legislature, which will use the information to help decide whether to continue funding the programs.
The Sacramento Bee reported that the Los Rios Community College District has admitted it applied for $1.3 million in funding for which it is not entitled because 185 courses it offered to high-school students weren’t advertised to the general public or didn’t have proper documentation.
The parents of one high-school student enrolled in the program questioned whether allowing the districts to audit themselves, with only spot checks from outside authorities, would be sufficient to ensure they had not broken the law.
Derek and Theresa Flor, whose son is a senior at La Habra High School in Southern California, said they were surprised to discover he had received college credit from both Fullerton and Cypress colleges for courses they say he didn’t attend.
“(It) seems to me an independent audit would be the scariest thing they would have to face,” Derek Flor says. “I would prefer that to districts self-policing. That’s like putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop.”
Jason Murphy, a higher-education consultant to state Sen. Jack Scott, who was once the president of Pasadena City College, said the advantage of having the review done by the chancellor’s office is that preliminary results could be available by the time the Legislature considers the coming year’s budget.
“I think we’ll get better data and sooner than if we wait for an independent audit, which could take six to nine months,” Murphy says. “We need to get to the bottom of this issue now.”
At Rancho Santiago Community College District, which operates Santa Ana and Santiago Canyon colleges, spokeswoman Judy Iannaccone said the district found it had operated one class in 2001 that appeared to violate guidelines because it was not open to the public.
“We do not know at this time if we will be expected to pay any money back,” she says.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com