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Palomar College. Courtesy photo
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State budget crisis agency to probe Palomar College

SAN MARCOS — The Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team is set to examine how and why Palomar College faces a $11.7 million deficit.

The process began in a public-facing way when Michelle Giacomini — the deputy executive officer for FCMAT — addressed the Palomar College Board of Governors at its Sept. 24 meeting. Palomar College signed a contract with FCMAT to begin the process on Aug. 16.

Giacomini praised the college for volunteering to go through the audit, saying about 10% of state K-12 schools and community colleges go through a FCMAT audit not by choice of the school districts, but by state mandate due to a situation gone astray financially.

“We will provide recommendations to you to become a stronger entity, based on an external evaluation,” said Giacomini. “It’s brave of you to have us come in. It’s very brave because we may tell you things that you don’t want to hear. We may tell you things that you thought that you hadn’t seen written before and you may see things that you had written and now it’s substantiated.”

She also called a FCMAT probe a “blueprint for any entity to do better because you aren’t hearing it from your own staff and you’re not hearing it from your administration, but you’re hearing it from someone external.”

The “brave” part, Giacomini added, is that all reports that FCMAT does are a matter of public record. So, Palomar’s performance — and perhaps shortfalls — will be visible for anyone to see after FCMAT leaves the scene in the form of what FCMAT calls a “Fiscal Health Risk Analysis” report.

That analysis, the result of dozens of survey questions meant to determine whether a public school is at risk or has reached the point of fiscal insolvency, asks questions such as “Is the district avoiding a structural deficit in the current and two subsequent fiscal years?” and “Has the district’s enrollment been increasing or remained stable for the current and two prior years?” according to a copy of it available online.

The report will entail field work on Sept. 26 led by Giacomini, featuring interviews with faculty and staff. Those questions will be based on the hundreds of documents that Giacomini said FCMAT had obtained via request after an agreement was reached for the agency to perform the investigation. Those documents requested will correspond with questions raised in the survey and included items sought such as “information related to the District’s fraud hotline,” “Annual District External Audits” for the past three years, “documentation that the CEO approves enrollment goals” and “Documented policy for evaluating the acceptance of grants and other gifts,” among others. In total, FCMAT requested36 different sets of documents from the college as part of its probe, according to a document obtained via the state’s Public Records Act request.

Giacomini added that four FCMAT staffers will be present and that, though the agency hopes to do only one day of field work, it is not a guarantee that it might not take more time. She also conveyed hope that the report will come out within six weeks of the visit, meaning in early-November, but again did not guarantee that the timeline could be met.

FCMAT charges a fee of no more than $39,800 to colleges to perform the investigative work, Giacomini said in response to a question asked by trustee Norma Miyamoto at the meeting. That entails work to pay consultants and travel, as well as $1,100 per day for each FCMAT staffer doing on-site field work. Palomar College President Joi Lin Blake said that the FCMAT fees will be funded through the Institutional Effectiveness Partnership Initiative funds the college had received from California Community College State Chancellor’s Office for this fiscal year, or a $200,000 budget.

FCMAT was previously slated to come to do its field work at Palomar College on April 8 to April 10, according to Palomar College Budget Committee documents. But the visit was postponed by Connie Moise, director of information services at Palomar College, on March 11, according to emails obtained via the Public Records Act request. Trustee Nina Deerfield asked why the college cancelled the visit, with Giacomini citing “personnel changes” happening at the time and Blake saying the college did not have the Institutional Effectiveness Partnership Initiative funding lined up yet.

In an Aug. 26 letter to college faculty and staff, Blake put a positive spin on the FCMAT probe

“The District takes its fiscal performance and management very seriously, and is exercising its due diligence to ensure sound practices,” wrote Blake. “While there is much work to be done in Fiscal Stewardship, I remain confident the District can and will continue to support the academic, career, and personal goals of our students.”