For six years, CR illegally heisted hundreds of Hamiltons from students



Why did College of the Redwoods charge students for tests the state had already paid for?

Say you're an incoming CR student who just took the mandatory math and English assessment exams and -- dammit -- barely missed the cutoff for those college-level courses you'd been aiming for. Bummer. But no biggie, you tell yourself (and maybe your parents); you'll just study a bit more and take the tests again. Except, when you show up for the retests you learn that there's a $10 fee for the second go-round -- math and English both. Same with the third try, should that be required.

"Lame," you mutter to yourself. "Like missing the grade wasn't bad enough."

It turns out that these student retest fees, which CR charged between fall 2003 and spring 2009, may have been more than just a bummer and a hardship for students; they may have been illegal. Assessment exams for incoming students are required under California law and funded through the state's matriculation allocation. In other words, CR already gets paid to administer the tests, so charging students constitutes a double-dip -- one that's forbidden under Title Five, the state regulation code governing education.

Over the past six years, the seemingly nominal fees (what's 10 bucks, right?) may have had untold adverse effects on students. Karen Rio, CR's student representative to the Board of Trustees, recalled one fellow student -- the Associated Students treasurer, in fact -- who recently settled for a lower-level math course after realizing the retest fee would leave her without enough cash for the bus ride home. "That's against the law," Rio told the Journal last week.

Assessment Supervisor Ruby Sodhi, who administers the student exams, said the impacts may have been worse still, considering the majority of CR students rely on financial aid. "They're being asked what's more important -- the money in their pocket or the classes they want to take," Sodhi said. For strapped students possibly wavering on their commitment to higher education, that choice could provide just the discouragement they don't need. "I think to some degree that impacts their ability to complete and move forward with the goals they had," Sodhi said. "I can't say for sure how it impacted them, but it's definitely not setting them up for success." Exemptions were available, though few students requested them, she said. (For entirely separate reasons, Sodhi is currently pursuing a discrimination lawsuit against the college.)

No one reached by the Journal could explain the original justification for the fees. Learning and Student Development Vice President Keith Snow-Flamer said their continuance through last semester was a simple oversight. Administrators, he said, failed to notice when state regulations changed in 2004, forbidding such fees.

Yet someone did notice the change in Del Norte; that campus never charged for retesting. And Sodhi said the matter didn't go unnoticed in Eureka, either -- that in 2004 she sent her supervisor a copy of the relevant passage in the California Community Colleges student fee handbook, which states, "There is no authority to charge a fee to students for assessment tests that are a part of the matriculation process." Her whistle-blowing was disregarded, she said. Sodhi also claims to have alerted Snow-Flamer immediately after he was hired in 2006. "He just nodded and moved on to something else," she said.

Snow-Flamer has no memory of such an encounter.

Last month, Sodhi contacted the Chancellor's Office, where she found a rapt audience. "They told me that the college must immediately stop this practice or else one of two things could happen: The students could file a lawsuit ... or the college could be held liable for reimbursing the fees." Sodhi quickly notified her supervisor, as well as Rio, Snow-Flamer and CR President Jeff Marsee.

"When the word came to me a couple weeks ago ... I immediately told the academic support center to cease and desist from this practice," Snow-Flamer said. The trickier part will be reimbursing the students, which he said the school "absolutely" plans to do -- by sending postcards to affected students with instructions for seeking a refund as well as posting the information on the school's Web site. However, identifying and locating all those students won't be easy. Some who paid for retests didn't actually attend CR so were never issued a student ID number. Others have moved numerous times.

"Going back to 2003 will be a major undertaking," Snow-Flamer said. Just since 2006, the school charged students $5,250 for retests. Nevertheless, Snow-Flamer said he's not concerned about the potential liability or the impact this infraction might have on the college's ongoing accreditation issues. (See "Stress Fracture," July 30.) "The key point to me is to make restitution and make those corrections -- put processes and policies in place to make sure this never happens again," he said.

Curiously, something similar did happen again in May, when students voted in a mandatory $15 student activities fee. This, too, was later found to be forbidden under both Title Five and the student fee handbook; such fees must be voluntary.

Snow-Flamer's plan to ensure such mistakes don't recur includes getting more people involved in oversight. "It's not just the administrators like myself," he said. "In my view, everybody has the responsibility to make sure we're doing the right thing."

Sodhi's take on accountability is not quite so egalitarian. "The law isn't going to come to you and ask you to follow it -- you need to know," she said. "And the higher up you are, the more responsibility you should take."

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