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L.A. COMMUNITY COLLEGE DISTRICT ELECTION

2 slates square off for Board of Trustees

Arguing that new blood is needed, four challengers have joined forces in an attempt to unseat a group of four incumbents.

March 02, 2007|Tami Abdollah | Times Staff Writer

Four men have banded together with hopes of bringing what they call better management and new blood to the Los Angeles Community College District by ousting a group of incumbents Tuesday.

The incumbents, who are also campaigning as a slate, say their years of experience have given them the "momentum" to finish important projects, especially a wide-ranging building program.

The Board of Trustees, which has four seats up for election, oversees a nearly $1-billion budget for the college district.

L.A. County's is the largest community college district in the country, made up of nine campuses with about 185,000 students.

It encompasses more than 880 square miles, from Pierce College in Woodland Hills on the northwest to Harbor College in Wilmington on the south.

The slate of challengers includes Guy Hajime Mato, a businessman and former Los Angeles County deputy sheriff; Jozef Thomas Essavi, a businessman; Roy Burns, a teacher and former deputy sheriff; and Hector Fermin Gurule, a businessman.

The four incumbents are all vying for a third term: Sylvia Scott-Hayes, Mona Field, Georgia L. Mercer and Warren T. Furutani. They were first elected to their districtwide offices in 1999.

There are two independent candidates, both running against Mercer and Burns for the board's Office 5: Hanna Hajjar, an engineer and inventor, and Mike Rives, a cancer center coordinator.

Board members work part time and are elected to four-year terms. About half of the seven-member board faces reelection every two years. There are no term limits.

The challengers accuse the current board of wasteful spending on unnecessary and badly managed construction. In 2001 and 2003, voters in the district passed bond measures amounting to about $2.2 billion to repair aging buildings and construct new ones.

In interviews and at a candidate forum last week, the challengers said they want to streamline district spending, make the board's actions more transparent and review bond money allocation.

The incumbents, also in interviews and at the forum, denied the allegations of wasteful spending and pointed to rising costs and their use of an independent oversight committee to watch spending.

"By holding together we're hoping this one more term will enable us to move forward ... and really tackle some of the more visionary challenges," Mercer said. As an example, she cited the high dropout rate at community colleges.

A study released this month by researchers at Cal State Sacramento found that 76% of degree seekers entering community college did not earn an associate's degree or successfully transfer to a four-year institution.

At the forum, Mercer said the college district's figure was closer to 51%; she said most could be attributed to the district's policy of taking in all students interested in higher education.

Essavi said, however, that the percentage was one example of the board's failure to reach out to students. He said the reform slate would focus on communicating with students and dealing with the high cost of textbooks and other issues close to their hearts.

"Only in LACCD can a 51% failure rate be looked at like success," Essavi said. "If people elect me and I'm serving four years, and after that if it's still 51%, I will not seek reelection -- actually I will resign."

A priority for the incumbents is pushing initiatives for 2008. They said these initiatives aim to lower student fees from $20 per unit to $15 and to have the state budget separate community college funding from K-12 education funding -- currently combined under Proposition 98, approved by voters in November 1988. The incumbents said the funding split would ensure that the district receives its full share of money owed to it by the state and allow it to determine its own future.

The challengers said they decided to run as a slate largely because they viewed it as the only way to enact change.

"In order to really be able to make a difference, you need to have four votes on the board," Essavi said. "You need a majority to make decisions, and you cannot make decisions if you're just one vote out of seven."

The incumbents have faced a slate before. In the 2003 election, four of 12 challengers ran together, accusing the incumbents of not being proactive in battling district budget cuts.

Together the incumbents have a financial advantage, having raised about $120,000, which includes donations from faculty and staff unions, building trade groups and administrators.

The slate challengers have raised about $70,000, mostly their own money or in contributions from independent donors. Hajjar has raised about $3,000 and Rives about $1,500.

Hajjar says his focus is to provide the district with his engineering know-how to lower construction costs and better manage contractor spending. Rives says his priorities include expanding healthcare training and giving each campus a specialty.

If no candidate received a majority of votes for a seat -- only a concern for Mercer's seat -- a runoff election would be held May 15. The new board will be seated in July.

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tami.abdollah@latimes.com

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