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Tough challenges lie ahead for college trustees

ELECTIONS 2013

Nine candidates are competing for three open seats on the L.A. Community College District board, only one incumbent among them.

February 24, 2013|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times
  • Students head to classes at East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park. The nine-campus Los Angeles community college district is the nations largest, with an overall annual budget of $3.5 billion and 240,000 students.
Students head to classes at East Los Angeles College in Monterey Park. The… (Katie Falkenberg, Los Angeles…)

The Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees faces a host of immediate and pressing issues this spring, chief among them: the selection of a new chancellor, budget uncertainty and increasing pressure to move struggling students more quickly through the two-year schools.

Nine candidates are vying for three seats on the board in the March 5 election. One incumbent, Nancy Pearlman, is seeking to retain Seat 6, while Tina Park in Seat 2 and Kelly Candaele in Seat 4 did not seek reelection.

The nine-campus Los Angeles district is the nation's largest, with an overall annual budget of $3.5 billion and 240,000 students. The prospect of at least two and potentially three new trustees comes at a pivotal moment, with Chancellor Daniel LaVista last week announcing his resignation, effective June 30, the day before a new term begins.

The state's community colleges are under pressure to increase course offerings, improve outcomes for the tens of thousands of students lingering in remedial math and English classes, begin more aggressive online education and find ways to allow students to graduate or transfer to four-year schools more efficiently. Trustees must also set a course to increase revenue and deal with continued state funding challenges.

Candidates for the three seats largely are interested in improving the schools' finances, but they have few proposals for aggressively turning around the massive two-year system.

The Los Angeles college system should make better use of its political muscle to influence the governor and Legislature for increased funding, said Mike Eng, a former Monterey Park Democratic assemblyman who is running for Seat 2 against challenger John C. Burke, a retired accounting instructor at Los Angeles Valley College.

Eng, who served on the Assembly's Education Committee, said acquiring additional money depends on establishing performance standards for campuses to increase student success rates.

"The governor and the Legislature are going to want to know how many classes we added, how many additional students did we accommodate and how many of these students got certificates or graduated," said Eng, 66, who has collected about $193,688 in cash and other contributions through the Feb. 16 filing period and is being supported by faculty unions and the local Democratic Party.

Burke, 68, who teaches part time, also wants to focus on accountability but by improving teacher training and basing funding on completion of courses rather than on enrollment, which he said would free up funds for more classes. He listed no contributions and said he was using his pension to finance his campaign.

Burke's funding formula is similar to one included in Gov. Jerry Brown's recent budget plan. It was among a slate of measures Brown proposed to improve graduation rates as the state's 72 college districts struggle to overcome deep funding cuts, slashed class schedules and plunging enrollment.

Most of the candidates were more cautious about some of Brown's other proposals, such as moving toward more online learning, but agreed that the Los Angeles board should focus more on students after a bruising period of controversy stemming from oversight of the system's $6-billion campus rebuilding program, which has been investigated for mismanagement and wasteful spending.

In addition, two campuses — Harbor and Southwest — were placed on probation after evaluations last year by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges found deficiencies in several academic and administrative areas. West Los Angeles College received a warning.

Pearlman, 64, a trustee since 2001, said ensuring that colleges remain accredited would be a priority, as would working with K-12 educators to improve college readiness and reduce remedial demands. Pearlman listed about $12,400 in campaign contributions, including money from district contractors.

One of her challengers, Tom Oliver, said the probation decisions reflected poorly on the current board's governance. Oliver, 67, past president of the Pierce and Mission campuses, said he would add more class sections and consider proposing that some students pay the full cost of instruction for high-demand courses to increase revenue — a highly controversial plan.

He has raised about $15,000, mostly in small donations from family and friends, he said.

David Vela, 37, another challenger, said he would boost orientation and counseling for remedial students. He would achieve some savings, he said, by thinning administrative positions and reining in perks such as car allowances; he also suggested that the district should apply for more federal and foundation grants.

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