An inquiry into the alleged misuse of two student funds at Santa Rosa Junior College has spurred questions that could turn into a statewide investigation at the community college level.
On Easter, the Associated Students, in concert with Director of Student Affairs and New Student Programs Robert Ethington, sent questions to the district counsel, the School and Colleges Legal Services of California, about the legality of the current use of some of these student funds to pay salaries.
Each semester, every SRJC student is asked to pay an optional $1 Student Representation Fee, amounting to between $42,000 and $45,000 annually in recent years, according to Robert Edmonds, executive vice president of the Associated Students. The fund was created by special election, and its stated purpose is to be used by students to lobby government to change policies as they see fit.
The other fund is the Student Activity Fee or Student Program Fee, a $15 fee paid by students to join the Associated Students and reap the benefits thereof. Discounted parking, free admission to events and games and discounts at the CyBear lounge are among such benefits.
But instead of going solely to programs and lobbying, these funds are paying for the salaries of two positions, Administrative Assistant III and Account Specialist, and have for a number of years, says Edmonds. A total of roughly $111,000 per year goes to the salaries, benefits and expenses associated with the two positions; $75,000 comes from the Student Activities Fund, and $36,000 from the Student Representation Fee.
“The Associated Students develop a budget every year at this time and they recommend that budget to the trustees,” Ethington said. “This year, that process is being put on standby because of this inquiry.”
Ethington has been working with the students to determine if funds are being used in an appropriate way.
“First and foremost, we want to follow the law,” he said.
Every year, the Associated Students develops a budget and takes it to the Board of Trustees for approval. “It is part of the student experience,” said Ethington. “Just like they would in a nonprofit, they recommend that budget to the board. In the 13 years I have been with the college, the board has always approved what the students bring.”
That the students’ budget is approved annually without trustee intervention means every year, the students have passed this line item, approving the funds to be used for salaries.
That is, until now.
Edmonds is the first person in charge of the budget who has taken the inquiry this far. He said as long as it’s clearly and transparently communicated to the students what they are getting for their money, there is no issue. But, he added, if it is considered legal, “I think the district should be responsible for at least half of what the students are paying now.”
“I have been advised that if, as I believe, the use of these funds is illegal, and that I am being compelled to continue including salaries in the budget that I believe is illegal, that I should resign from my position,” he added.
This advice, among other things, created a desire in Edmonds to dig deeper into the issue that had been raised semester after semester by the associated students, but never fully addressed and solved.
Jessica Jones, the president of the Associated Students, created the budget last year, and says she wasn’t made aware at the time that the funds that were allocated to pay the salaries were even accessible.
“I had no idea I could access these funds,” she said. Her chief concern with the current inquiry is that it takes months for the Associated Students to access the funds. She envisions a future where on-campus clubs can easily access funds for appropriate usage such as travel to conferences and putting on events.
According to Edmonds, Ethington is taking steps for this to happen now, but Ethington said that it is difficult once the budget has been passed to get to the reserve funds.
In 2005 there was a memorandum of understanding stating the associate students would pay 75 percent of a .6 full-time equivalent position, according to Ethington.
That later morphed over the years, and the students agreed to pay 45 percent of one full-time equivalent position. At the time of the MOU, there was no specification as to which funds the monies came out of. Over the years, the item in the budget has just passed on and been approved. The number changes every year with contract negotiations and healthcare rate changes.
“The specifics aren’t something I can even look at,” Edmonds said, citing confidential personnel issues. “I can just see the big number.”
The questions that Ethington and the Associated Students sent to district counsel are:
1) Use of Student Activities Fee revenue (pursuant to EDUCATION CODE SECTION 76060-76067):
a) Is it legally permissible for the Associated Students of Santa Rosa Junior College (ASSRJC) to authorize the use of revenue collected from the optional Student Activities Fee to fund salaries and benefits for Sonoma County Junior College District (SCJCD) classified employee position(s) whose duties include work performed on behalf of the ASSRJC?
b) If it is legally permissible to fund such a position, and such a position is fully funded (1.0 FTE) by Student Activities Fee revenue, can the position perform work for the department that supervises the position and provides administrative oversight of the ASSRJC? Background note: some of the work performed may not directly benefit ASSRJC, but it does support the overall financial operations of a college department that has historically maintained a reciprocal support and consultative relationship with the ASSRJC.
2) Use of Student Representation Fee revenue (pursuant to EDUCATION CODE SECTION 76060-76067):
a) Is it legally permissible for the ASSRJC to authorize use of revenue collected from the optional Student Representation Fee to fund salaries and benefits for SCJCD classified employee position(s) whose duties include performing work to support “students or representatives who may be stating their opinions and viewpoints…”(California Title 5, Section 54805) before legislative bodies?
b) If it is legally permissible to fund such a position and such a position is partially funded (.45 FTE) by Student Representation Fee revenue, must at least .45 FTE of work performed by the position be in direct support of activities related to “students or representatives who may be stating their opinions and viewpoints…” before legislative bodies?
c) Must language of intent to authorize salary and benefit funding for SCJCD classified employee position(s) be included in the ballot text of a student election that would include authorization of payment for salary and benefit funding of said position through collection of a Student Representation Fee?
Typically, answers to questions like this come within two weeks, but Edmonds said Monday that district counsel has sent clarification about some of the questions.
Regardless of what the opinion is by counsel and what the district chooses to do at Santa Rosa Junior College, Edmonds said he will likely be taking this issue to the chancellor’s office, and that he hopes the Student Senate of California Community Colleges is on board with him to look deeper into this issue at each college.
There is a General Assembly of the SSCCC at the end of April. Hopefully, said Edmonds, counsel will give their opinion before then so they can bring it up at the annual meeting.
As to the positions and whether the college would be able to fund them if the AS monies dried up, Ethington couldn’t comment at this time.
“But,” he said, “I think the college would work to find a place for the employees. I am hoping by the end of next week we will have a legal opinion,” he said.
“It is a big institution, there is a lot of bureaucracy,” Ethington said. “But I think there will be a good outcome. Jessica and Robert [Edmonds] have been great and I commend them on the amount of work and good things they have done for this college. Their job is to advocate and they feel like this is an issue that needs their attention.”