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Jim Newton: Tackling the truth in Compton

It is a source of fierce shame and more than a little defensiveness in Compton that the area's lone bastion of higher education, Compton Community College, lost its accreditation in 2005 after officials absconded with public money and the district came up short on its payroll. Six years later, however, there are signs of hope at the college, where a battle-scarred crop of leaders is fighting through threats of violence and howls of community protest but is at last confronting the truth.

After the school's troubles surfaced in the mid-1990s, a series of special trustees struggled to find a way forward while trying to appease a community that in some ways seemed more upset with the state for intervening than with the school management that had created the crisis. Then, last December, the community college chancellor appointed Genethia Hudley-Hayes, former president of the Los Angeles Unified School District board, to become the new trustee. Hudley-Hayes sized up the situation and found it bleak. And rather than appease the college's supporters, Hudley-Hayes publicly acknowledged that the school's financial problems remained acute and that accreditation was still likely to be years away.

Trying to get a hold on spending, she revoked credit cards issued to the staff. Officials notified her that they suspected a colleague of stealing copper wiring, and rather than hush it up, she called the police. He was arrested and is facing criminal charges. She demanded that the district aggressively address its financial troubles, and authorized layoffs. Danny Villanueva, the district's new business manager (it went through nine in five years), says colleagues stop talking when he passes them in the halls, but the district will end this fiscal year with positive cash flow.

Many Compton residents haven't wanted to hear Hudley-Hayes' message. When Hudley-Hayes addressed a community meeting in April and warned that the community college still faced a long road back to accreditation, the local Chamber of Commerce president described her as insulting. And when she acknowledged the crucial role played by El Camino College, which effectively took over Compton so that students could receive accredited degrees, that rankled too. Some Compton residents remain bitter that what they see as a "white" school now presides over a "black" one.

"I don't understand some things about Compton," Hudley-Hayes told me as we walked the well-tended grounds of the 88-acre campus. "I don't understand not being interested in factual information."

What has angered the community most was her decision to toss out the college's chief executive officer, a popular leader who ingratiated himself to the community in part by promising that accreditation was around the corner. Hudley-Hayes showed him the door, and Compton's seething anger boiled over.

"They fell off the turnip truck when I bought out this man's contract," Hudley-Hayes said. "I was accused of trying to change the climate and culture. People said: 'You're not from here. You don't know what you're talking about.'"

It got ugly. She was threatened leaving her office one evening by a man who accused her of causing trouble and warned her to "be careful." Her home was ransacked. Her office has been broken into repeatedly; someone took her journal and a flash drive; her email was hacked into. Today, she is accompanied everywhere she goes by a California Highway Patrol officer.

Even the more civilized response was rough. A group known as the Committee to Save Compton Community College District called for her ouster. Hudley-Hayes, the group's leader charged in a letter to the governor and chancellor, "is dictatorial, presumptuous, demeaning, condescending, disrespectful, dismissive of the input of others and mean-spirited in manner and deed." As if that weren't enough, the letter also faulted her diction: "Please inform Ms. Hudley-Hayes that the word is 'accreditation' and not 'accredi-DA-tion.'" The letter identified Hudley-Hayes, Villanueva and Keith Curry, the acting chief executive brought in by Hudley-Hayes, as the "triumvirate of inexperience."

Hudley-Hayes does not seem terribly bothered by all this — she happily gave me the letter calling for her removal — and is characteristically plain-spoken about what she blames for the resistance. Compton, she said, is protective of its black leadership, and the man she removed is black, though the school district and city are mostly, and increasingly, Latino. "We have African Americans not willing to cede power," she said, "They're saying to Latinos: 'We're not going to allow you the opportunities we had.'"

It bears noting that Hudley-Hayes is African American, as is Curry. He admits the community hasn't reacted well to his appointment, but he's not fazed either. He grew up in Compton. Compton Community College was the first college campus he ever visited. Today, Curry can walk from his office to his mother's house in four minutes.

As we sat in his meeting room, a poster of President Obama with the word "Destiny" on the wall, Curry and Villanueva and Hudley-Hayes laughed off some of the protests and kidded each other — Villanueva pointed out that he's both younger and better looking than Curry, which Curry accepted with a roll of his eyes. As for the reaction, the calls for his removal, the threats against his colleague, Curry said: "I don't let that bother me. My thing is all about students and student success."

jim.newton@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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