Budget cuts to community colleges could impact Jewish Studies

As reported in the Los Angeles Times on March 31, the failure of Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Sacramento to agree on a budget could mean cutting the spending on the state’s 112 community colleges by $800 million.

In addition to an already-planned hike in student fees of nearly 40 percent, the additional cuts would mean eliminating courses from community college offerings, loading more students into the classes that remain and admitting fewer students.

But even before the breakdown of budget talks, austerity measures were being felt at the Jewish Studies department of Los Angeles Valley College (LAVC) in Valley Glen, one of only a few community colleges in the country to offer a two-year degree in Jewish Studies.

“The effects are obvious,” Rabbi Mark S. Goodman, an adjunct professor of Jewish history and religion at LAVC, said. Goodman had about 25 students in his Hebrew Civilization course in the fall 2010 semester; that number doubled in the spring. “Classes all around the community college have been cut, so students need classes,” Goodman said.

Scott Svonkin, a candidate running for the only open seat on the Los Angeles Community College Board not decided by the election on March 8, called the projected cuts “tragic.”

“Los Angeles, which is one of the largest community college districts in the state, will bear the brunt of the cuts, and the effect will be devastating on the individual students,” Svonkin, a senior adviser to Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, said.

In March, Svonkin received 35 percent of the vote — more than the six other candidates running for the seat, but not enough to avoid a runoff. He faces Lydia A. Gutiérrez, who received 14 percent of the votes, on May 17.

“I am going to fight for community college students because I was one of them,” said Svonkin who attended Pasadena City College, then transferred to California State University, Northridge, and went on to work for politicians including Tom Bradley and Paul Koretz, often as a liaison to the Jewish community.

If he does win the seat, Svonkin said he would work to reform the district, and its construction spending in particular. “We still have $2 billion in construction to do,” Svonkin said.

Money that has been allocated for construction cannot be redirected to cover operating expenses, which has led Mona Field, past president of the Los Angeles Community College Board who won a new term as a board member in the March election, to fear the worst.

Summer programs, Field said, could be among the first offerings to go. “Whatever we offer will be the bare minimum,” Field said, noting that courses like Jewish studies could be particularly vulnerable.

“We’re going to have these fabulous buildings and nobody to occupy them,” Field said.