Budget will challenge Southwestern College operations

Dr. Kindred Murillo

As we enter our fourth month of remote operations at Southwestern College, we are proud to say that we remain available to our students and community. The extraordinary efforts our faculty have made to move their teaching online have stretched each of us in new ways professionally. Our management team has worked closely with faculty and our classified professionals to maintain a sense of community—to our students and to each other. It requires an intentional commitment each and every day, and one that we are all dedicated to for the benefit of our students and community.

Since we began this journey in mid-March, we have been, and continue to be, dedicated to two guiding principles: student health, well-being and educational success; and employee physical and financial health and well-being.

Our Southwestern College students primarily come from the local communities, and we also have students who attend from other regions of San Diego County. This will be an unusual year because some colleges in San Diego County may be configured differently because of the infection rate differences.

It also will come as no surprise that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the State of California (State) budget. The state went from a projected $5.6 billion surplus for 2020-21 and $21 billion in reserves in January to an estimated $54.3 billion deficit. We are expecting multiple rounds of changes over the next year. We will adjust our operating budget to align to our guiding principles noted above and equity.

Governor Gavin Newsom and state legislators have reached a compromise budget that largely protects public health and education, although the compromise will not be without struggle for our local college budget. Much of the savings for the state are realized by deferring payments to community colleges this year and next year. In the 2020-2021 budget year (which began July 1), that means a $4.4 million payment that was to be paid to the district in June will now be paid to us this month. That deferred number for the 2021-2022 fiscal year doubles to $8.8 million.

As conscientious stewards of the public’s funds, our Governing Board and college leadership have been preparing for any potential economic downturns, and therefore Southwestern is in a good position to weather this delay in cash flow. Before the pandemic crisis, our budget managers had already brought forth proposals that reduce their non-personnel budgets by 23%. That translates to nearly $2.9 million in ongoing savings. Other bright spots to the state budget that benefit Southwestern College include allowing the college to reduce its contributions to the state employee retirement systems, saving Southwestern more than $1 million for 2020-2021. The governor is also fully funding a second year of free college tuition through the Promise Grant.

The big unknown, however, is whether our federal legislators will approve a new round of relief funding. The state budget relies on receiving federal relief, and without this relief community colleges could face an additional $791 million in budget cuts. This would directly impact Southwestern College students and their educational programs.

Community colleges play an important role in the state’s economic recovery. Southwestern College is a critical economic partner for South County through programs that help unemployed and underemployed community members build new skills.

We are grateful for the federal CARES funding we have received to date. Our higher education colleagues across California and the nation, however, understand that additional emergency aid is critical to stabilize institutions of higher education financially and to support students who will return to classes in the fall with substantial unmet need. We encourage our community members to contact their congressional leaders to ensure this critical funding is included in the legislation they are considering. Together we can keep the educational avenues open to our residents.