Harrison Wills (center), president of the Santa Monica College Associated Student Body, addresses the media during a press conference in front of the SMC Library on Tuesday. Several students attended to speak out against a plan by college officials to offer some classes at full cost to students who are willing to pay. (photo by Ray Solano)

SMC — Santa Monica College students are calling for a referendum on a first-of-its-kind policy that would give them the option to pay the full cost of some requisite classes beginning in the summer of 2012.

In a press conference held in front of the SMC Library Tuesday, a panel manned by members of the Student Organizing Committee asked for a vote to be taken of the student body, faculty, classified employees and other impacted groups to determine if the “self-funded” classes were acceptable to those that work and learn on campus.

The classes would be offered during the summer session, and would cost approximately $180 per unit, almost four times the $46 per unit cost set for state-funded classes beginning this summer. Only a year ago, classes cost $26 per unit.

College officials came up with the self-funded options as a way for students to get the classes they need to graduate or transfer sooner instead of having to wait because those classes are full. State budget cuts have forced community colleges to slash the number of classes offered.

The higher cost puts the classes out of the reach of working class and low-income students said Mikhail Pronilover, of the Student Organizing Committee.

“We had no say on our own campus,” Pronilover said. “We’re not saying stop contract education immediately, we’re saying put it to the campus.”

If not, the students may look to other, more direct types of action, Pronilover said, referencing general strikes called in Puerto Rico or the occupation of buildings on University of California campuses when a 32 percent tuition hike was announced for the UC system in 2009.

A general vote would fix what students see as the undemocratic process by which the two-tiered system was brought to SMC, which officials call the “Advance Your Dreams” program.

“This is not going to advance my dreams, this is going to hold me back,” said Harrison Wills, president of the campus Associated Student Body.

The decision to implement the self-funded classes was not presented to students or student representatives, who should have a voice in any decision that alters the availability or cost of much-needed courses, Wills said.

Instead, the Board of Trustees approved it with little warning on March 6 over the protests of students who came to decry the move.

“This is a move away from equal access,” Wills told reporters and students.

College officials, however, hold that the self-funded courses provide students more opportunities to get classes that have been cut to balance the books after significant funding decreases to the tune of 13 percent to the entire community college system since 2008.

Students have been forced to stay in the community college system longer than intended because they can’t get into the classes they need to advance to the California State or University of California system.

If a tax initiative set for the November ballot fails, the system will face another 5.5 percent funding cut, which would mean another $5 million missing from the SMC budget and potentially more lost classes.

Students noted that in the same time, administrators have received a 30 percent pay increase — or approximately $2 million — while 1,000 courses were cut.

One of the demands that will be presented to the Board of Trustees includes rolling back those pay increases.

The college did make an adjustment to salaries to a large number of positions in 2007 after a study was conducted that showed that the college was paying its employees less than other campuses of similar size, said Bruce Smith, a spokesperson for the college.

“We are indeed proud of the fact that we have one of the highest-paid faculty and staff in the state, and that’s kind of across the board where we know we want to pay what we can to get the best people,” Smith said.

Although Smith was unsure what numbers the students were using to come up with the 30 percent or $2 million figures, returning salaries to what they were five years ago would not solve the larger funding problem, he said.

SMC officials also dispute the claim that the proposition for self-funded courses came without warning to the student body. A similar program has been in place for international students since 2010, and was discussed for a broader audience before the Academic Senate at the same time.

Furthermore, the Board of Trustees held a study session on the topic in February, at which point the student trustee representative, Joshua Scuteri, was given a packet explaining the proposal, Smith said.

Scuteri did not attend that meeting.

Eight days after the board voted to move forward with the self-funded programs, the matter went to the District Policy and Advisory Committee, or DPAC, for review. Wills sits on that committee, which he felt should have been informed before the trustees voted.

Though the college does have a shared governance policy in place, it has no responsibility to run every proposal through the process, Smith said.

“Sometimes the board has to make a decision,” he said.

ashley@www.smdp.com

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