Ray Gen knows what it's like from both sides of the aisle, so to speak.
He's on the governing board of the El Camino Community College District, but he's also a full-time English teacher at El Segundo High School.
"I talked to a former student who graduated just last year, and he said in the fall he could only get two classes" at a community college," Gen said. "I mean, it's going to take him four or five years just to get out of a two-year program. It's just a travesty what's going on."
Gen has sat as a trustee on the board while they have had to make $10 million in cuts this past year. Students show up to complain about the loss of more than 1,100 course sections, the inability to get into classes, delayed graduation, and a lack of student services.
"We look back at them with kind of glazed eyes, saying we can't help it," Gen said. "We'd rather cut off our own arms, but there's nothing that can be done because the state refuses to pay for it."
Unlike the California State University or University of California systems, California Community Colleges' rates are set by the Legislature and have increased steadily from $26 per unit last year to $36 this year, and it will go up to $46 this summer. That compares to the 2002-3 school year, when it was $11 a unit.
The increase in revenue returns to the state not the schools, as it does for the CSU and UC systems.
"Out of all the three entities, the CSUs and the UCs, the piddling amount that is charged is not even close to what it takes to run a class," Gen said.
But that was also part of the idea. Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott has spoken proudly about the system's open enrollment and the fact that it takes all comers.
"I often say, University of California takes the top 12 percent, CSU the top 33 percent, we take the top 100 percent," said Scott at a recent town hall at Pasadena City College. "We're still going to do that."
He has also spoken strongly against the effect of the budget cuts on the system's students.
"They come in, they’re admitted, but there are no classes. They want that basic English, basic math, all that, chemistry, history courses. And it's full," Scott said.
Last year the system as a whole turned away 137,000 students who could not get into a single course.
"It's sad to think that we're looking at a group of students who are thirsty for higher education, all of which would enrich their life and enrich the economy of California, and because of a lack of state resources, we're having to limit it," Scott said.
Gen said those numbers don't even include the number of students who may get one or two courses but will take much longer to reach their goals.
He said this is especially problematic when the community colleges are often relied upon for retraining and updating skills during an economic downturn.
"It's not happening because we're not willing, and not because there are too few students, but because we're not able to get funding," Gen said.
It has been an adventure in budgeting for most school districts across the state. The community college has to set their budget three years in advance.
"We don't know what's going to happen in November, we don't know actually what's going to happen next month," said Gen, referring to the governor's much-anticipated May revise of his proposed 2102 budget.
That budget, as unveiled in January, relies significantly on the governor's initiative to raise taxes being approved by voters in November. Otherwise, education could see another $5.2 billion in state funding cuts.
"I don't know of a single school district that says, 'Oh yeah, that's going to pass,'" Gen said. "We have to plan, we must plan, that it's going to affect us negatively. Otherwise, all of a sudden, we're scrambling in December, and you can't do that fiscally. So everyone is planning it's not going to happen. And then hopefully it does pass and then we can repair some of the programs. But how is that good planning?"
If the initiative passes, the El Camino Community College District still has to contend with a $6.6 million budget shortfall. But if the initiative fails, they will also get hit with the possibility of millions more in cuts.
The 2013 winter session, which was nearly eliminated, may be in jeopardy again if that were to happen, Gen said. And any changes would have to be determined between the time the votes come in in early November and when the session starts in January.
"No person could possibly balance their own personal budgets with this kind of uncertainty," Gen said, "and you expect a school to balance it three years out?"