Officials at Santa Monica College are optimistic that enrollment at the college will rebound by spring to avoid a cut in state funding that could be as high as $10 million.

During fiscal year 2003-04, which concluded at the end of June, the college lost between 7,000 and 7,500 students, according to Tom Donner, college vice president of business and admissions.

The state mandates that a college must regain its lost enrollment or lose state funding.

Donner linked the student enrollment losses to a cut in college revenues and a need for drastic expenditure cuts during the previous 2003-04 fiscal year.

Donner pointed to three issues that hurt the college.

1. The college was locked into multi-year contracts with its employees and under collective bargaining mandates, the college could not reduce employee costs without union participation.

2. The state changed the contribution that the college district had to make; and

3. Uncontrolled increases in health and benefit costs for employees skyrocketed during the fiscal year.

While the ability to cut costs was limited, revenues for the college also declined during the fiscal year.

The college was forced to move funds from unrestricted accounts to areas where the college had little or no flexibility in how the money was spent.

Donner said college district trustees soon realized that the college district wasn’t going to be able to balance its budget during the 2003-04 fiscal year without some drastic expenditure cuts.

“Eighty-five percent of our operating budget goes to salaries and benefits,” Donner said.

“We don’t have a lot of room” for expenditure adjustments in those areas, he added.

“You can talk all you want to about conserving energy, but it doesn’t represent a lot of expenses,” Donner said.

“What you do is cut in the salary area, but we are a collective bargaining state and that means you have to get unions to agree.

“That is not easy since we have multi-year contracts.

“So, you encourage people to retire and then you look to layoffs and a reduction in personnel.

“Still, this didn’t generate enough so we knew we had to reduce classes.

“When enrollment goes down, you might as well solve all your problems in that period of time. We made an attempt to solve it all at once.”

So during this process, Santa Monica College saw a 25 percent reduction of students between the fall of 2003 and the spring of 2004.

It is difficult to determine how many students Santa Monica College has because of the manner in which students enroll at the college.

“We are not like an elementary school where the students are there for the whole day,” Donner said.

“Some of our students take only one class or more, so it is hard to get a head count

“So we made reductions where we could.”

The scenario outlined by Donner leads to the issue now facing the college — the potential loss of state revenue.

There is a requirement by the state that if a community college doesn’t recover in a fiscal year the number of students lost in the previous fiscal year, state funding will be cut during the next fiscal year.

Santa Monica College has the remainder of this fiscal year — through next June — to get its enrollment up by about 6,500 full-time students, Donner says.

The college has already picked up about a quarter of that requirement in the current fall semester.

“We have picked up close to 2,000 students already,” Donner said.

The college still faces the potential of a loss of about $6 million in state funds if it doesn’t recover the rest of its students by the end of June.

Donner calls the $6 million figure “a worst scenario.”

To ensure that the college reaches its goal of replacing the 7,000 to 7,500 students it lost during the previous fiscal year, Donner says the college is looking at its student “mix” and at areas “with the greatest student demand.”

There are classes where there are more students desiring to enroll than spaces in the class.

“These are classes we will want to add,” Donner said.

“We have the potential for doing that.”

The college still faces some obstacles, including a large amount of construction that is under way on the campus. Much of the construction is in response to earthquake damage.

The college has also lost the use of Santa Monica High School, where evening Santa Monica College classes were taught.

The high school has said “it prefers if we don’t use” the high school facility, Donner said.

But the college benefits with the Emeritus College program the college operates in downtown Santa Monica.

That program was interrupted during the past fiscal year but the college will now “be able to get the program going again. It was in transition during ’03-’04 but it has opened and those students count toward our goal of increasing students,” Donner said.

But Santa Monica College still has to worry about its current budget, Donner said, adding that much of the college budget is dependent on the state budget, which has still not been passed for the current fiscal year.

Donner admits that the college needs to get its “revenue stream” going again.

“That is what we need to get students back,” he admits.

“Without a budget, we didn’t have the funds to get students,” Donner said.

Santa Monica College is also benefited by what Donner calls “a cap” on other community colleges in the Los Angeles Community College district.

Other colleges don’t have room for additional students.

Santa Monica College does have room for such students, he emphasizes.

Despite what seems like a dangerous position for the college, facing up to a $6-$10 million loss in state funds, Donner says he is optimistic about the future for his college.

He says that the Santa Monica College trustees will not allow conditions at Santa Monica to deteriorate to a situation where — as at Compton recently — the state steps in with a “watch dog” to manage the college.

“The bottom line is that we are pretty optimistic,” Donner concludes.