SACRAMENTO — After two years as chancellor of the California community colleges--the largest higher education system in the nation--David Mertes has concluded that the system won't work unless he and his central office staff are given more authority.
"I've attempted for two years to try to make this system work," Mertes said in a recent interview at his downtown Sacramento office. "But, frankly, I've come to the conclusion that unless the community colleges are allowed greater leeway to conduct their own affairs, we'll never be an effective system."
Mertes, 60, is a 20-year veteran of California community college administration. He was picked for the chancellor's job in 1988 because he knew the system well and because of his reputation as a patient, low-key mediator. If anyone could weave the 107 separate two-year campuses into a coherent system, it was thought, Mertes could.
But the chancellor said he has been hamstrung by state regulations and bureaucratic behavior.
"We are treated like a small state agency," Mertes said. "There is just no understanding that this small office . . . represents the largest higher education system in the nation."
The problem, he said, is that a number of agencies have some say over how the system is run. For example:
* The Department of Personnel Administration sets the salaries for top positions in the chancellor's office, and Mertes says they are not high enough to attract top candidates.
* The state Department of Finance must approve any reorganization of the 236-person central staff.
* The Department of Personnel Administration has final say over proposals to move people on the central staff from one job to another. "I can't even transfer a secretary," Mertes said.
* The Department of Finance must approve spending priorities that are set by Mertes and the system's Board of Governors for the 1.4-million-student system. The state agency frequently makes major changes in these spending plans, Mertes said.
Many agree with Mertes that such actions make it virtually impossible to devise systemwide programs and policies.
"The toughest system to lead is the one with the most restraints," said a Sacramento higher education observer who asked not to be identified.
Unlike the University of California, which has constitutional autonomy, or even the California State University system, which operates with considerable independence, the community colleges have remained largely under the thumb of the Legislature and the state agencies.
Division of authority has been a problem ever since the systemwide Board of Governors and chancellor's office were established in 1967.
There are 71 community college districts. The largest college, with an enrollment of 30,877, is Mt. San Antonio in Walnut; the smallest, with an enrollment of 1,392, is Feather River in Quincy. Each district has its own elected governing board, which approves academic and vocational programs, handles labor relations and sets general standards.
Mertes and the Board of Governors monitor the academic and financial performance of each college, gather systemwide information for the governor and the Legislature and, most important, distribute state funds, which account for 65% of all community college financing. However, they have relatively little authority and must depend heavily on persuasion to make systemwide policies work effectively.
Joshua Smith, Mertes' predecessor, left three years ago with a blast at the state for not giving him enough authority to do his job.
The next year, major legislation was enacted, and signed by Gov. George Deukmejian, to clarify the role of the chancellor and the Board of Governors, provide more money for community colleges and help them with a variety of academic improvements.
While local colleges benefited, Mertes said, little was done for the central office or the system as a whole. "What was in the bill to implement a system was very minimal. It was just Band-Aids," he said.
But some critics blame Mertes for not making a successful transition from running a community college district (he was chancellor of the three-campus Los Rios district in Sacramento) to running a state agency.
"He has a lot of people who know what's going on in the community colleges but hardly anybody who knows what goes on here," said Robert Harris, who is in charge of education programs in the Department of Finance.
However, many others agree that Mertes faces formidable obstacles.
Mertes is especially irritated because he has not been able to fill six top central office jobs that were exempted from civil service regulations by the 1988 legislation.
Mertes (who makes $101,000 a year) wants to pay his chief deputy $107,888, but the Department of Personnel Administration has approved only $86,533.
"Cabinet secretaries--the top jobs in state government--pay only a little more than $101,000 a year," said David Tirapelle, the department director. "We've been very reluctant to pay community college officials more than state agency heads."