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College District Choices

April 04, 1999

Choosing the people who head the Los Angeles Community College District has never been easy for Los Angeles voters, for the nine colleges' crucial role in the regional economy goes generally unrecognized. The task will be especially daunting on April 13 because of the large number of candidates in some races and the shameful lack of public debate. In a city of more than 3 million, the candidates have been seen by only a few hundred people during a handful of meetings held by area chambers of commerce and neighborhood associations.

Why should we care about this ultra-low-profile office? Because if the most qualified candidates are elected to it, the colleges could continue the reforms the very troubled district began last year, becoming engines for tailored high-tech training and economic growth.

On the other hand, if candidates who are beholden either to undisclosed special interests or to quirky personal agendas prevail, the district will become what it was as recently as 1997: a drain on taxpayer revenues with declining enrollment.

The best candidates, indicated in dark type, have all pledged to follow a similar reform path: giving individual college presidents more authority but holding them more accountable. Concrete results should be expected of presidents and faculty, like boosting the percentages of students who complete courses and then transfer into the UC or Cal State system.

District 1: A whopping 10 candidates are vying for this seat, and, unfortunately, most seem motivated by agendas that have little to do with education. The strongest candidates are Marilyn Grunwald, a businesswoman who has many sound ideas for "making the community colleges the shining gems they once were," and Sylvia Scott-Hayes, a teacher at Cal State Los Angeles. Their well-monied opponents are Evelyn Metoyer-Williams, who runs day-care centers for the Los Angeles Unified School District but lacks knowledge of higher education, and Peter Ford, whose campaign literature points out that he's the son of the actor Glenn Ford but fails to detail any educational ideas. Nancy Pearlman describes herself as "community college instructor," but she teaches just one course.

District 3: Bereft of new ideas, incumbent Julia Wu exemplifies the district's exhausted old bureaucracy. Fortunately, she has two superb challengers. Jules Bagneris, a church pastor and community activist, has concrete reform ideas and understands how the colleges can be an avenue to economic self-sufficiency. Mona Field, a professor at Glendale College and author of a popular text on state politics, is more an insider than Bagneris but has fresh thoughts. She recommends, for example, abolishing many faculty job protections.

District 5: Incumbent Georgia Mercer has detailed viable ways to reorganize the district and tap more government revenue streams and has increased the district's lobbying clout in Sacramento. Mercer's two opponents, former Los Angeles County firefighter Jonathan Leonard and Woodland Hills Homeowners Assn. President Gordon Murley, lack knowledge of education, much less of community colleges.

District 7: Warren T. Furutani has one strike against him: He was a member of the L.A. school district's dysfunctional board. Nevertheless, he's the strongest candidate, with good knowledge of the system. Furutani's only opponent is Mark Isler, a Van Nuys businessman without any detailed plan for the community colleges.

Can Los Angeles' community colleges become a generator of economic growth, competing vibrantly with Santa Monica, Glendale, Pasadena and other local districts? Voters will provide the answer April 13.

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