SMC — Protesters against the concept of self-funded classes at Santa Monica College have something to celebrate — the law seems to be on their side.

That’s the word coming from officials with the Community College Chancellor’s Office, who say that conversations with the Attorney General’s Office reassured them that the classes, which require a student to shoulder the full cost of instruction, are not allowed under the state’s education code.

SMC officials had proposed to create the additional course offerings under the contract education system, a mechanism officially sanctioned by the Legislature two decades ago that allowed employers to pay for their workers to go to classes through the community college system.

Those employers would pay the full cost of classes, including teacher salaries, facilities costs and instructional materials.

“It is our legal opinion that the California Education Code limits contract education programs to employers/industries that request specific job training or classes for current or prospective employees,” wrote Paige Marlatt Dorr, director of communications with the chancellor’s office, in an e-mail.

Furthermore, if SMC officials decide to go forward with a contract education system at some point in the future, they could be open to legal action from the Chancellor’s Office or another outside organization, said Paul Feist, vice chancellor of communications.

“They put their program on hold, so there’s no activity around it right now,” Feist said.

SMC officials agree to disagree, said Bruce Smith, spokesperson for the college.

“The college has not received a written opinion from the attorney general setting forth the basis for its legal opinion,” Smith wrote in an e-mail. “Until we receive such an opinion, it is clearly difficult to make any comments.”

The college may be tight-lipped about the Attorney General’s Office response to its proposal, but on March 23, Campus Counsel Robert Myers sent a 57-page document to Steven Bruckman, general counsel for the chancellor’s office, explaining in detail why SMC officials believe they’re able to move forward with the program.

It comes down to a difference in opinion.

In 1996, Bruckman wrote a three-page response to a college seeking to offer a nursing program with a hospital that wanted to charge members of the public that did not work for the hospital a fee to cover the cost it was paying the college to provide the class.

Bruckman wrote that the community college could not do that because the fee (then $26 per unit for a community college class) was fixed except in the circumstance of contract education where a “public or private agency” took on the cost.

If the hospital did not spend money on the program because it recouped its costs from members of the public, it wasn’t operating within the rules, Bruckman wrote.

“It is one thing to require that businesses pay the full cost of having a college provide training to their employees. It is quite another to permit such a contract education arrangement to, in effect, create a whole new mechanism by which colleges may charge students for the full cost of providing them with instruction,” Bruckman wrote.

Myers countered with his own analysis, which suggests that the situation 15 years ago, referred to as “the Nursing Opinion,” could not apply to SMC’s present circumstances.

“With all due respect, we believe that the Nursing Opinion’s statutory analysis regarding the legality of such a program is deeply flawed,” Myers wrote.

Santa Monica College planned to contract with a nonprofit organization called the Santa Monica Transfer and Career Alliance to provide the courses, something that the Nursing Opinion does not address.

A document created in 1986 for the state Legislature looking at contract education in California showed that there were already nonprofits set up by districts that served as contract education partners.

“By regulating these entities, the Legislature obviously anticipated and implicitly endorsed their continued existence,” Myers wrote.

Myers also rejected the notion that the chancellor’s office could weigh in on the cost of the classes because they would be run without any state funding.

While SMC officials and the chancellor’s office argue on how best to provide students with an education, neither side contests that something must be done.

Over $800 million has been cut from community college budgets as a result of the state’s financial woes in the past three years. In Santa Monica alone, over 1,000 courses have been cut, meaning students are forced to stay in community college longer to get the classes they need to move on or transfer to another university.

The self-funded system, called the Advance Your Dreams program by officials, was meant to fill in some of those gaps by providing in-demand courses to students who needed them and wanted to pay for them during the summer.

A pilot program meant for this year’s summer session would have offered 50 additional courses. It was canceled as of April 6 after heavy protests resulted in students being pepper sprayed outside a SMC Board of Trustees meeting.

President Chui Tsang and the board backpedaled and agreed to put the program on hold until stakeholder groups were able to weigh in more thoroughly on the proposal.

Although it was canceled for the summer session, SMC may still move forward with contract education in the future, officials have said.

It’s hard to know what view state officials will hold on SMC’s position in the future, given a bill currently in the State Senate regarding the provision of career and workforce training courses.

Introduced by State Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Compton) in February, the bill would start a voluntary pilot program on eight campuses in different community college districts that would allow the districts to set fees for classes no higher than the cost of maintaining the pilot program to supplement existing course offerings.

There’s no guarantee that SMC would be one of those campuses if the bill were to become law.

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