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Community College Boards Must Be Permitted to Do Their Jobs

A labyrinth of state laws and regulations hinders those elected to oversee the local institutions.

May 30, 1999|CEDRIC A. SAMPSON | Cedric A. Sampson is chancellor of the South Orange County Community College District

Policymakers concerned about community colleges are asking a simple question, "Who is in charge?" Most observers assume that locally elected boards of trustees are in control, and therefore hold them accountable for failure to meet the rising demands of a growing population and the new needs of our information-based economy.

The California Citizens Commission on Higher Education, for example, recently found the community colleges overly stratified, inefficient and unable to provide the necessary access for increasing numbers of students. The investigation concluded that "many governance decisions are heavily, if not exclusively, influenced by priorities internal to the institutions, and excessively focused on protecting the status quo, especially during times of stress."

The remedy proposed by the commission for such institutional self-absorption is the elimination of locally elected boards in favor of larger, weaker boards appointed by state officials. Although the commission has diagnosed the malady correctly, this prescription is the wrong cure. At a time when internal factions immobilize colleges, the solution is to strengthen boards' ability to confront internal factionalism, not weaken it.

As a case study, the Board of Trustees of the South Orange County Community College District demonstrates what happens when an activist board of trustees confronts the status quo. In 1996, several trustees were elected by South County voters on campaign promises to improve administrative efficiency and increase the number of classes available. Their primary target was faculty released time--the common practice of releasing teachers from their classroom duties to do administrative work.

For example, at Irvine Valley College "school chairs" were released from their classroom teaching to do work traditionally performed by deans. Paid like administrators, but with all the independence of teachers, these tenured faculty members were accountable primarily to the peers who elected them.

In 1996-97, the cost to the district of releasing the equivalent of 35 full-time teachers at its two colleges, measured in their own salaries, was $2,264,280. Two years later, by reducing the amount of released time and substituting stipend pay, the cost of college governance was $620,696, a $1.6-million drop in overhead costs. Concurrently, the board reduced the number of administrators, and cut that area by $917,372.

These reforms produced a firestorm of reaction from employees who lost control and money. They began to use the array of codes and agencies governing the community colleges as tools to reinstate their former status. First, those faculty who had worked as school chairs filed a complaint with the Public Employment Relations Board, charging that the board's agreement with the Faculty Assn. (the union) restricting released time was improperly and unfairly bargained. The charges were reviewed by the board and rejected for lack of merit.

An appeal was made to the state chancellor's office claiming that the rules of "shared governance" had not been observed in reducing released time to the curriculum committee chair. After an investigation, those charges were found to be without merit as well.

Several of the dismissed school chairs went to court, claiming that the board had violated the open meeting law. Of the many charges, most were dismissed or cured and corrected by subsequent action. In a second suit related to the open meeting law, of the eight charges, six were dismissed, and the other two are on appeal. Appeals are expected to take an additional year or more.

Irvine Valley College faculty and their advocates demonstrated against the trustees at meetings and attacked them in newspaper articles. A recall campaign was launched against the 1997 board president on grounds unrelated to released time, and failed twice to attract enough signatures. Board opponents unsuccessfully ran a slate of trustee candidates in the November 1998 elections. This small but determined group, attempting to reassert its former authority and recoup its economic loss, has lost in every arena. Nevertheless, the campaign continues to be waged in the press, before the Accrediting Commission and within the faculty itself.

The district story presents the crux of the governance issue statewide: the labyrinth of state laws, dictating multiple layers of college governance in minute detail, hinders responsible boards and creates a variety of resources for those resisting change.

How can the public and state officials increase the efficiency and accountability of community colleges? Not by eliminating elected boards, but by permitting them to do their jobs.

The Legislature needs to remove the confusion about faculty leadership emanating from statutes of shared governance overlying collective bargaining law. Also, the public must learn that controversy is not synonymous with board wrongdoing, nor does harmony mean that it is performing well.

As the example of the district board illustrates, controversy well may indicate that the board is confronting its problems with firm resolve. Local voters should be allowed to judge whether a board is acting in the public interest.

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