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College District Trustees Chastise Grand Jurors for Critical Report : Education: Officials defend fiscal management practices. A $1.25-million shortfall could mean cuts in classes and part-time teachers’ layoffs.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Even as they learned of a new budget shortfall topping $1 million, Ventura County Community College District trustees defended their fiscal management practices and said last month’s scathing grand jury report was flawed.

In their formal response to the report--which accused the district of mismanaging its resources and failing to anticipate state budget cuts--trustees chastised the grand jurors for conducting a sloppy investigation.

“The errors in the grand jury report are so glaring that the grand jury report is almost laughable,” trustee Gregory P. Cole said during a Tuesday meeting. “It is unfortunate that the Ventura County grand jury has to be held in such low esteem.”

Specifically, Cole and other officials said the grand jury report ignored the efforts the district has already made to bolster its reserves.

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While district officials defended their stewardship of the three-campus district, they learned they will have to cut another $1.25 million from a $61.6-million tentative budget that already was scavenged for savings in virtually every department.

Budget Director Harry Culotta said the state recently opted not to fund three programs that would have provided the district $1.25 million.

He already has made up for $100,000 of the shortfall by estimating that lottery income will be higher than he originally forecast. But another $1.15 million must be cut from the 1994-95 spending plan, he told trustees in a memo before Tuesday’s meeting.

The grand jury concluded that the district should better prepare for such fiscal curveballs from the state. But Cole said it already had.

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“If the grand jury wants to be critical, they should be critical of the state Legislature,” Cole said. “They’re the ones making the mandates and then making cuts on top of that.”

The revenue shortfall means that dozens of classes are in danger of being canceled, and that sweeping layoffs of part-time teachers may be necessary, officials said.

“We would like to see things cut that are farthest away from the classroom as possible, but I’m not sure we can do that,” board President Allan W. Jacobs said. “We’ve pared the budget back considerably in all those areas.”

The largest of the three programs left unfunded by the state would have reimbursed the district $800,000 for fees waived for low-income students.

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Jacobs said he did not fault the grand jury’s intent. But he said jurors failed to report that the district already had begun setting aside more money for emergencies.

The report “just reinforced what we were already doing,” he said. “We’ve already made it an issue.

“Obviously, (the shortfall) is not good, but it’s not something we didn’t anticipate,” Jacobs said. “We knew the way the government was putting the (state) budget together there might be a shortfall.”

The district’s adopted tentative budget of $61.6 million includes cash reserves of 3%, or about $2 million, down from more than $2.6 million--just over 4%--in June, 1993.

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But trustees seem reluctant to again dip into reserves to make up the new shortfall.

“I would not want to see us start out the year with less than 3% reserves,” Jacobs said. “I think we’re going to have to make the cuts.”

Trustee Timothy D. Hirschberg, however, said the district should look at reducing administrative costs before cutting classes or laying off teachers.

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“I want actual classroom cuts to be last on the list,” Hirschberg said. “I’ll renew my proposal to consolidate administrative responsibilities between Ventura and Oxnard colleges, and look at the district office and administrative spending as a whole to see what we can tighten there.”

Responding to the grand jury, board members said they have made a conscious effort to safeguard the district from the vagaries of fluctuating state funding levels.

“We do expect them,” Hirschberg said. “But it’s just impossible to expect particular cuts in particular programs. Our tentative budget was just that. When we adopted it, we knew there would be changes.”

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Two years ago they agreed to set a goal of increasing district reserves by .5% each year, up to a maximum of 5%, despite increasing state cutbacks and a decision to pay out almost $2 million due in early retirement benefits, the district’s response to the grand jury states.

“This board made a commitment to get us off the (state) watch list,” Jacobs said. “As a result of that, we’ve been increasing the reserve every year.”

The state placed Ventura’s community colleges on a list of districts to be watched two years ago, because of inadequate reserves to cover unexpected expenses.

A vote on the final 1994-95 spending plan is scheduled at the board’s Sept. 13 meeting.

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