New heaters for buildings at the City College of San Francisco, solar panels and electric vehicle chargers at Riverside campuses, free textbooks for students in San Bernardino — all of these projects depend on state money that the governor wants to cut. 

The cuts, proposed in Gov. Gavin Newsom’s May budget revision, are particularly controversial because they would require community colleges to effectively return nearly $800 million they received last summer.  

“That’s unprecedented,” said Jose Torres, the executive vice chancellor of the San Bernardino Community College District. 

Some of the cuts to maintenance funds could put students across the state at risk. At Ohlone College in Fremont, representatives from the Deaf Studies program told administrators last year that the fire alarm in their building had no visual cues. Christopher Dela Rosa, a vice president, said the college has since replaced that alarm but there isn’t enough money in the state grants to see if the other buildings have the same problem.

“I just need to prioritize which ones I can with the limited funds I have,” Dela Rosa said. 

In San Bernardino, Torres has already signed contracts and committed those dollars towards certain projects. 

However, his college district has yet to spend the money. 

That’s typical, said one of the governor’s advisers at the Department of Finance who was not authorized to comment: “It takes time for districts to determine which projects they would fund in which order. It takes time to try and get up to contract.” 

As a result, the finance staff member said, colleges should still have time to revise their plans in light of the proposed budget cuts. 

Torres already made his plans public, though. One of those state-funded projects is the first thing students see when they visit the websites for either of the two community colleges in his district: Free tuition and textbooks this summer. 

Torres said he isn’t willing to pull his commitment for free textbooks and summer tuition away from San Bernardino students. Instead, the community college district will draw down a quarter of its savings in the event that the governor’s budget passes and the state money falls through. 

Budget cuts turn up the heat on California community colleges

These budget cuts come as a direct result of the state’s $31.5 billion budget deficit

Community colleges will still receive over $9 billion in state funds this year, if the governor’s budget is enacted. That includes a percentage increase in per student funding based on inflation and more money to build affordable housing for students.  

But something had to give to make up for the state’s budget deficit. 

The Department of Finance proposed cutting two major investments from last year: a one-time grant to support maintenance and green energy projects, and another one-time grant to help colleges recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. In both cases, the dollars arrived last summer, but colleges have years to spend them.

Many community colleges put the state’s dollars toward small-scale maintenance issues, such as replacing old heating and AC units or making routine repairs to roofs and streets. 

These improvements are often low on the priority list and are frequently deferred, but if colleges wait too long, the consequences can be drastic nonetheless: At the City College of San Francisco, aging heaters gave out this winter, leaving students and professors to resort to hand-warmers.

The San Francisco City College board has since moved to fix the broken heaters with emergency funds, but other buildings with aging HVAC infrastructure, like the library, will depend on the state’s money for regular repairs.

In Riverside, community college leaders had planned to fix the AC units in its aging cosmetology school, but the project may not materialize if the budget passes in its current form. 

The Riverside Community College District also used $5 million of the state’s grants for  a renewable energy initiative that would offset 60% of the district’s power through solar panels and EV chargers. The project has taken years to finance and months of planning by administrators and a contractor, all of which will stop if the state needs the money back.

Alternatives to cut

Lizette Navarette, interim deputy chancellor for the community college system, said that there are roughly 5,000 such maintenance and construction projects that have either already used these funds or plan to. Most of those projects are in the planning phase, but CalMatters identified at least one school, Ohlone College, that has already spent half of the $3.6 million it received for maintenance costs. 

“We recognize that tough decisions had to be made,” Navarette said. She wasn’t surprised that the budget included significant cuts but said the state should explore other options to reduce costs.  

Instead, she asked the governor’s budget team if they could defer payment to a later year when the state’s financial outlook is brighter. 

That option comes with its own liabilities. The state already owes roughly $11 billion in deferred payments across its agencies, which might take more than  a decade to pay off, said the staff member at the Department of Finance. “The state very likely will face more budget problems over the next few years,” said a recent report from the Legislative Analyst’s Office. 

Alternatively, Navarette has asked the state to consider giving colleges more flexibility about which programs to cut, which in turn gives colleges more agency to decide which promises to keep.  

Both the State Assembly and State Senate have been receptive to her requests, she said, though the governor makes the ultimate decision.

Even if the community colleges keep all the state dollars that they received, it still would not solve the colleges’ maintenance problems. The state’s investments last year — the largest in history for deferred maintenance, Navarette  said — were estimated to account for roughly half of what colleges needed

Adam Echelman covers community colleges for CalMatters, in partnership with Open Campus.

Community colleges reporter for CalMatters in partnership with Open Campus.