The beleaguered Santa Monica College Board of Trustees backed away from a controversial two-tier tuition proposal at an April 6 special meeting following an intervention by the state chancellor and a pepper-spraying incident that has gone viral.

College officials had been on the defensive since the tuition plan was made public earlier this year. The summer pilot program would have cost students $180 per unit for English, mathematics and science, which are some of the most highly sought courses.

The contract tuition plan made national headlines and pushed the college, long known as an innovator in offering a variety of student-friendly services, into an unfamiliar spotlight.

The unanimous trustees vote to cancel the tuition initiative at the emergency meeting comes on the heels of raucous student protests at the college and the intervention of state Community College Chancellor Jack Scott.

The verbal clash between the students and administration came to a head at an April 3 board of trustees meeting that quickly became unruly and after the campus police were called in, several students were pepper sprayed.

A student-organizing group protesting the proposed tuition system held two press conferences at the college to denounce the pilot program. They insisted on holding a referendum on the contract education proposal and accused the trustees of seeking to privatize public education.

Scott’s office said in a statement that it believes the proposed two-tier fee system was not permissible under the education code and implored SMC officials to postpone the pilot program. He applauded the trustees’ decision to table the contract program.

“Santa Monica Community College District trustees and President (Chui) Tsang have my respect and appreciation for their decision to hold off on plans to institute a dual fee system for courses in high demand,” the chancellor said after the board vote. “Although I disagreed with this proposal, I cannot fault college leaders for searching for new approaches to serve students hungry for the opportunity to receive a college education.”

Tsang said the self-funded courses would have been voluntary and noted that they are nearly three times less expensive than classes at the University of California and California State University schools.

“The program, approved by the board in March, will augment 700 regularly scheduled state-subsidized classes at $46 per credit unit for California residents, an increase of 25 percent more classes than last summer,” Tsang explained. “Approximately 50 extra self-funded classes in the pilot program will be offered at SMC’s actual cost, which is $180 per credit unit, or $540 for a typical three-unit course.

“SMC’s cost is far below the tuition rate at the state’s other public educational systems,” the president added.

Sandwiched in between the two press conferences was the pepper-spraying incident by campus police.

“When some of these demonstrators used force to enter the board room and had overrun the door and the personnel stationed at the door, there was one discharge of pepper spray used by a Santa Monica College police officer to preserve public and personal safety,” Tsang said in a statement the day after the incident. “Unfortunately, a number of bystanders, including college staff, students and other police personnel were affected.

“Although a number of participants at the meeting engaged in unlawful conduct, Santa Monica College police personnel exercised restraint and made no arrests. Unlawful conduct included setting off fire alarms and attempting to disrupt the board of trustees meeting.”

The president said the college “regrets that a group of people chose to disrupt a public meeting in an unlawful manner. The college has launched a full investigation into the matter.”

According to the Santa Monica Police Department, approximately 30 people sought decontamination from the effects of the pepper spray. Five individuals sought further treatment by paramedics and three of them were later transported to a local hospital for further treatment.

Prior to the halting of the contract tuition program, student organizers who have been at the forefront of the protest movement called for a referendum on the two-tier system, which was one of the requests they issued at their press conferences.

SMC Associated Students President Harrison Wills said summer and winter sessions could become only contract education if the trustees’ plan had been implemented.

“It’s a dangerous slippery slope, and as a precautionary, principled person, and as someone who is concerned with equity in our society, we don’t go down that road,” he said. “We fund our schools, and this is the wrong solution.

“It’s a reactionary solution and a short-term one and it doesn’t look at long-term solutions.”

Mikhail Pronilover of the college’s student organizing committee echoed what many of his committee members said at the April 3 press conference.

“Students, faculty, and the entire campus community believe that the two-tier program, which is so controversial, which did not pass through any democratic or inclusive participation of students or faculty, and which is opposed by so many because of its inherent unequal treatment of students and move towards privatization, must be decided by the vote of the entire campus community,” he said.

Another student organizer, Samaria Gomez, rejected Tsang’s and trustees’ explanations that the $180 that students would have been charged in the pilot program was less expensive than courses that they would pay at a university.

“To say that because the UC and the Cal State (systems) are increasing that we should be increasing I think that’s ludicrous,” she asserted at the April 3 press conference. “The situations on campuses are very different.

“For many people, the community college is their only choice and once you take that choice away from them they don’t have any choices.”

SMC spokesman Bruce Smith said the students on the organizing committee did not understand what the trustees intended when they voted to implement the two-tier plan and emphasized that the self-funded courses would have been optional.

“There has been some misunderstanding about the program,” he said. “When we sit down and explain how it would have worked to the average student, they understood what we were offering.

“It’s unfortunate that there have been many misconceptions (made in public) about the program.”

Tsang and the board of trustees realize that the two-tier fee proposition created a great deal of animosity among much of the student body. “We acknowledge that people were concerned about creating a two-tier system,” Smith admitted.

“I think we’re getting the criticism because we’re sticking our necks out,” he continued. “We knew that this would be controversial, but we felt compelled to do something.”

State Assemblywoman Julia Brownley (D-Santa Monica) did not return calls for comment. The assemblywoman chairs the Assembly Education Committee and is a member of the Select Committee on Community Colleges.

At the April 6 emergency board meeting, Tsang announced that he had created a panel that will look into the pepper-spraying event. It will consist of trustee Nancy Greenstein, student trustee Joshua Scuteri, SMC nursing professor Eve Adler and Dean of Workforce and Economic Development Patricia Ramos. Campus counsel Robert Myers is the chair of the panel.

Calls to Wills and Pronilover regarding the need for the referendum after the trustees’ vote were not returned at Argonaut press time.

Scott said his office plans to consult with SMC officials on its future plans regarding tuition plans.

“I will work closely with the Santa Monica College leaders on strategies to improve access and success for all students,” he said.