Palomar College, under warning from state officials that it could go broke in two years, now is one of two community college districts in the state to be assigned a fiscal monitor in an attempt to rein in its ongoing financial crisis.
Ken Stoppenbrink, retired deputy chancellor of the West Hills Community College District in Coalinga, began working Tuesday as Palomar’s fiscal monitor. He will keep tabs on the college’s finances as the district battles a growing deficit and what state auditors called “a long history of inadequate practices.”
Why this matters
Palomar College, which serves nearly 30,000 students, has been embroiled in controversy as it grapples with the departure of its top administrator and an ongoing budget crisis. State officials have warned the district is on pace to go broke within two years.
The chancellor of the California Community Colleges system appointed Stoppenbrink after the state Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team warned in a November report that Palomar was at risk of becoming insolvent within two years and would be forced to borrow $6.5 million.
Stoppenbrink’s arrival also comes a month after the San Marcos-based district announced a resignation agreement with Palomar President Joi Lin Blake. She has been on paid administrative leave since December for unknown reasons and will receive more than $600,000 in severance and regular pay under the deal.
Faculty had criticized Blake’s financial management for months. As inewsource reported last year, several professors questioned a decision to spend $1 million of bond money to build a presidential suite on the top floor of the college’s recently constructed $67 million library.
Before the district’s board placed Blake on leave, a faculty vote in October showed 92% had no confidence in her.
As fiscal monitor, Stoppenbrink will regularly report on district actions and provide independent opinions of Palomar’s fiscal condition. He’s also expected to make recommendations to state officials “concerning any further actions that may be necessary to maintain the district’s solvency,” according to his contract.
Stoppenbrink, who was in health care before beginning a more than 20-year career in education, will be at Palomar until June 2021. The state community college system will pay him up to $150,000, with his contract estimating 720 hours of work at a $150 hourly rate.
He is expected to be on campus at least once a month. In a March 6 email to employees, acting President Jack Kahn said Stoppenbrink will attend college meetings and will work with the district’s fiscal and administrative teams.
“Mr. Stoppenbrink brings extensive executive-level fiscal management experience and will work with our fiscal team, attend board meetings, and budget meetings,” Kahn said in a statement to inewsource. “We are looking forward to working with Mr. Stoppenbrink as we continue to address the fiscal crisis of the District.”
Palomar was projected to have a more than $11 million deficit this fiscal year when the state auditing team analyzed the college’s finances. The auditors said at the time that “no plan is in place to improve the district’s financial state.”
The Peralta Community College District in Oakland is the only other district in the state with a fiscal monitor. Like Palomar, state auditors found the Oakland district to be at high risk of fiscal insolvency. A regional accreditation agency placed its four colleges on probation in January.
Peralta has faced sharp enrollment declines and a turnover in leadership. James Austin, former vice president of business and administrative services at MiraCosta Community College District in Oceanside, is Peralta’s fiscal monitor.
Despite Peralta receiving a higher risk score, an official with the state auditing team told the California Community Colleges’ board in January that she was more concerned about Palomar’s financial condition.
The official, Michelle Giacomini, said Palomar “almost worries me more because Peralta wasn’t running out of money as quickly.”
Palomar, as a member of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, is required by April to file an annual report to the agency. The report will be used to determine its fiscal health.
Colleges deemed at risk may be placed on enhanced monitoring, commission President Stephanie Droker told inewsource. Those that fail to meet goals by deadline “may receive an adverse action which affects the accredited status,” she said in an email.