El Camino College president Tom Fallo on his campus’s tree-lined commons, where he greets new students each fall. Photo by Kevin Cody
El Camino president Tom Fallow asks a seemingly off-the-point question when enlisting support for his campus’s $350 million facilities bond. Beach city residents will vote Nov. 6 on the bond, titled Measure E.
Fallo asks listeners to guess the percentage of incoming El Camino College students who pass the math, English and writing proficiency tests. Students must pass these tests before advancing to college level courses.
The answers: Math, 10 percent. English, 40 percent. Writing, 32 percent. These scores are relatively high compared to statewide community college proficiency scores. El Camino draws largely from affluent communities. Mira Costa and El Segundo send 20 percent of their high school graduates to El Camino. Redondo and Torrance send 40 percent and Palos Verdes 15 percent.
“I show these statistics to the principals of our districts blue ribbon high schools and they react with disbelief,” Fallo said.
The problem of poorly prepared students traces back to California’s underfunded school system. Large numbers of students fall further and further behind as they progress from elementary to high school. California ranks 47th in the nation in dollars spent per student. The state budgets approximately $5,800 annually per student. New York, by contrast, budgets approximately $18,618 annually,
Poorly prepared students create a choking point at the community college level because community colleges must accept every student who applies, even students who have not graduated from high school.
El Camino is required by law to provide remedial classes to students who fail the reading, writing and math proficiency tests.
“When people read that it’s taking students four to six years to graduate from two-year community colleges, what they often don’t know is that these students may have needed six or more remedial classes before they could start taking college level classes,” Fallo said.
This choking point at community colleges also holds back prepared students because teachers and classrooms that should be available for college level classes have been diverted to teaching remedial classes.
Now appears to be an odd time to ask local voters to increase their property tax assessments. The economy remains stagnant and the Nov. 6 ballot already has a $63 million Redondo Beach school bond measure and two State of California school funding propositions (30 and 38),
During an interview in his office last week, Fallo explained that the college needs to know now if the community will fund new facility improvements.
“The 2002 bond money will run out in three years. How we spend the remaining bond money depends on whether or not we will be able to continue refurbishing the campus,” he said.
The 2002 bond measure was $394 million, and like this year’s bond, was named Measure E.
That money has been used to give the 60-year-old campus new science, humanities and math centers. Infrastructure improvements from the bond save the school $100,000 annually,
The 2012 Measure E would fund a new music, theater and arts complex, a new football stadium, and new fitness, counseling and student activities centers. The funds would also renovate Marsee Auditorium and the library.
And, as Fallo likes to point out, passage of the bond would save the campus $1 million annually in utilities through improvements to the schools heating and lighting systems.
Fallo also sells the bond measure as a public works project for the hard hit, local construction industry.
The 2012 Measure E will add approximately $7 per $100,000 in assessed valuation to the $17 per $100,000 2002 Measure E assessment. Fallo said the new assessment will still be less than that of most of the state’s other 111 community college districts.
Fallo bases his hopes on Measure E’s passage on a survey conducted by Steve Kinney, of Public Opinion Strategies (POS), a Redondo Beach-based company that conducts polls for political candidates nationwide.
Kinney found that 99 percent of the college district’s residents knew of El Camino, a number he said, exceeds the recognition levels presidents and presidential candidates.
Even after telling voters the cost of the bond measure, 63 percent said they would vote for it. Measure E needs 55 percent to pass.
Of particular pride to Fallo was his school’s 82 percent favorability ranking, which nearly equaled UCLA’s (84 percent) and USC’s (83 percent).
During last week’s interview, Fallo argued almost as fervently for passage of Proposition 30 as for passage of Measure E.
Proposition 30 would raise $6 billion to $10 billion for education, statewide, by increasing the sales tax, and increasing the income tax on people earning over $250,000 annually (estimated to be the top three percent of taxpayers).
If proposition 30 fails, Fallo said, El Camino will be forced to cut its full time equivalent enrollment another seven percent. It has already reduced enrollment from 22,000 four years ago to 18,000 this fall.
What happened to California?
Fallo blames the school funding crisis on California’s reliance on income tax revenue.
“When the income tax revenue goes up, the state makes long term funding commitments. When income tax revenue drops the state’s in trouble because the commitments can’t be met. The state needs more predictable revenue sources,” he said.
In 2009, Fallo insisted El Camino increase its reserves.
“People said I was crazy, but I could see the state was going to reduce our income,” Fallo said.
Last year El Camino received $10 million less from the state than it received the preceding year. Statewide, the education budget this year is $800 million less than it was in 2008, at the start of the recession.
El Camino’s budget for the 2012-13 school year is $105 million. Next year it will be $101 million with $5 million to $6 million coming from the district’s reserves, reducing them to $15 million.
To offset declining tax revenue, the state has steadily increased the costs to college students. Community college classes, statewide, were free in the 1960s. They were $11 per unit at El Camino in 2002 and now are $40 per unit. (A typical class is three units, or $120).
Cuts to education have forced El Camino and other community colleges to adopt admissions policies that resemble triage at a battlefield hospital.
Veterans and the disabled are allowed to register first for classes. Then graduates from district high schools may register. And then, everyone else, if class openings remain.
This year registration opportunities were further restricted following Governor Jerry Brown’s approval of the California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force plan. The plan focuses the community colleges’ declining resources on students with declared majors who are advancing toward a degree.
“The idea,” Fallo said, “is you get 100 units of classes subsidized by taxpayers.” That’s the number of units generally required to obtain a two-year degree, or to transfer to a four-year college.
The plan makes El Camino classes increasingly difficult to get for students interested in personal growth rather than a degree.
An example, Fallo said, would be someone like astronaut Mike Fincke, who flew on the Shuttle Endeavor’s last mission. Fincke took geology classes at El Camino while stationed at the LA Air Force Base.
“Sure enough, when it came time for my interview with NASA, they wanted people with a background in geology. Well, I had that background, which gave me a competitive edge in the interview,” Fincke recalled in expressing his appreciation to El Camino.
He will be among the distinguished alumni, some of whom obtained degrees, some of whom didn’t, to be honored at a campus dinner on Oct. 20 Another honoree will be Comedy and Magic Club owner Mike Lacey, who attended El Camino to study auto mechanics and credits the school with giving him direction at a difficult time in his life.
Fallo contrasted Governor Jerry Brown’s state education plan with the 1960 California Master Plan of Higher Education, adopted during the administration of Brown’s father Governor Pat Brown.
That plan, Fallo said, called for the top 12 percent of high school graduates to attend a California university, the top 30 percent to attend a California State University and every high school graduate to attend a community college.
Fallo himself, like Fincke, was a “reverse student” at El Camino. After flunking out of UCLA he attended El Camino where, he said, “he learned to study.” He returned to UCLA for an undergraduate degree and an MBA. In 1995, he was named was named El Camino’s fifth president.
Each year since then, on the first day of the fall session, Fallo has greeted new students on the campus’s tree-lined commons.
“I wear my suit and tie and ask the students if they need directions or other help. In past years, they tended to ignore me. Now, they’re much more polite and appreciative,” Fallo said. ER