February 19, 2013
It would probably be better for the Los Angeles Community College District if endorsements like this one weren't necessary. That is to say, if the trustees of the community colleges were no longer elected but appointed. Because elections have not served the colleges well. For one thing, the position of trustee is so obscure that it attracts few high-caliber candidates. For another, voters are disengaged and uninformed about the community colleges, which means that unions, employees and the construction industry — the main campaign donors — have too strong a role in who is elected.
That's too bad. Community colleges perform a mighty task in California, offering vocational training, remedial classes and preparation for transfer to four-year universities. In the Los Angeles district alone, the nine colleges enroll more than 140,000 students. The challenge of addressing these students' needs is daunting, and in fact has not been met effectively. Funding cuts are partly to blame, but the schools also have provided too little counseling to students and allowed too many to meander through the system, collecting credits but never graduating or moving on to four-year schools. The district board of trustees has not acted with enough urgency to fix the situation. Worse, the board bungled many aspects of its multibillion-dollar construction effort, wasting tens of millions of dollars, as a Times investigation disclosed in 2011. Its initial, defensive posture about its misuse of taxpayer money was dismaying. Clearly, change is needed at the top.
In many other states, community college boards are appointed, often ensuring a balance of educational expertise and community representation. California would be wise to move in the same direction.
Unfortunately, that's not what's on the table at the moment. For now, the trustees are selected by voters, whose best option is to scrutinize the candidates to find those who would shake up the culture of the entrenched board in positive ways. Three of the district's seven seats are in play, and in two of those, the incumbent has decided not to run again. Although candidates run for particular seats, the elections are at large.
Seat 2: Mike Eng
Eng, a termed-out assemblyman from Monterey Park, has substantial government experience. His understanding of how public agencies are supposed to function is something the community college board could have used to steer clear of some of the construction scandals. His grasp of the colleges' operations is rather shallow at this point, but he would be a quick study. His suggestion that the colleges should impose a "drop fee" on students who perpetually sign up for classes and then drop them, taking up seats that other students might covet, is a good and fair one.
John Burke, Eng's opponent for the seat being vacated by Tina Park, is a retired accounting instructor with the community colleges who says he would focus on improving the quality of teaching by offering voluntary workshops that would link up the colleges' instructors with professors at four-year universities. That's a nice idea, but the colleges have higher priorities right now.
Seat 4: Jozef Essavi
Neither candidate for the seat being vacated by longtime trustee Kelly G. Candaele makes a convincing case for why he should be elected, but Essavi, a real estate broker and repeat candidate, is more focused on the key issues: high dropout rates, lack of course offerings, misuse of construction funds and the role of outside interests in determining board priorities.
His poor grasp of the solutions, though, is disheartening. He says, for example, that he would provide more classes for students. How? By converting adjunct instructors — essentially freelance faculty who receive little pay — into full-time staff professors. While it's true that adjuncts have been treated poorly at the colleges, merely turning them into staffers wouldn't help solve the problem of class shortages. As full-timers, they would be more expensive, which would mean the colleges would be forced to offer fewer courses, not more. Challenged on his response, Essavi agreed that he'd gotten it wrong. His zeal for reform is appreciated, but if elected, Essavi will have to do his homework.
His opponent, former East Los Angeles College President Ernest Moreno, knows the community college system better but displayed a troubling lack of urgency about its problems; in fact, he says this is actually a rather calm period for the district and that the pressing demand for courses is a temporary aberration. His main concern is that the board should give individual campuses full control over their budgets, letting them determine how to schedule classes and otherwise spend money without interference. We disagree. One of the more problematic missteps uncovered by Times reporters in 2011 was when a president at one of the colleges decided to move a fitness studio to another location, which required a complete redesign and wasted close to $2 million.
Seat 6: Tom Oliver
Oliver, a retired president of Pierce College, is by far the most articulate and informed challenger to longtime board member Nancy Pearlman. He calls for making more efficient use of instructors' time by having them spend some of their weekly "departmental duties" hours on student counseling, an intriguing idea that could provide a much-needed service at minimal to no cost. He decries the colleges' tendency to ignore many of the criticisms they receive in accreditation reports, and he rightly calls for professional training — of the board itself.
The last time Pearlman ran for reelection, the only topic that interested her was praising the district's environmentally friendly construction program — the same program in which much of the misspending occurred. She is still defensive about it. To her credit, Pearlman has been more prone to question problematic decisions than most other trustees, but all in all, she has not been an effective board member and has trouble outlining a clear vision for reform.
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