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Little attention paid to race in huge community college district

Incumbent Nancy Pearlman is being challenged for her L.A. Community College seat by David Vela, a political aide, in a low-profile race. The candidates have sharply different profiles.

May 18, 2013|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times
  • With several Los Angeles Community College campuses facing federally sanctioned accreditation reviews, incumbent Nancy Pearlman said she would bring more experience to those battles. David Vela wants to restore courses lost to budget cuts and build partnerships with local industries to create job training programs.
With several Los Angeles Community College campuses facing federally… (Ricardo DeAratanha, Los…)

An incumbent who styles herself as an outsider and a reform-minded community activist and political aide will face each other in a runoff election Tuesday for the final seat on the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees.

Unlike the hard-fought Los Angeles mayor's race, the match between trustee Nancy Pearlman and challenger David Vela has been conducted with little public scrutiny and virtually no contact between the two candidates.

It's a source of frustration for Pearlman and Vela, running for a seat in the largest community college district in the nation — with nine campuses serving 240,000 students in communities spread across 882 square miles, from Sylmar to San Pedro.

The Los Angeles board launched the political career of California's 34th and 39th governor, Jerry Brown, who placed first in a field of 124 for a seat in the newly created college district in 1969.

The candidates have sharply contrasting profiles. Pearlman, 65, is a longtime television and radio producer specializing in environmental issues who taught anthropology and mass communications at the Harbor and West Los Angeles campuses.

She was elected to the board in 2001 and has been a strong advocate of the district's $6-billion, bond-funded campus modernization project, which is using building techniques that are certified as environmentally sound. It also has been criticized for questionable spending and inadequate oversight. In a series of stories in 2011, The Times uncovered examples of shoddy workmanship and poor planning that cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

In a fourth term, Pearlman said, she would continue pushing for sustainable buildings and for programs to keep students in college and provide them better remedial education. With several campuses facing federally sanctioned accreditation reviews, Pearlman said she would bring more experience to those battles.

Despite that experience, Pearlman casts herself as the grass-roots candidate, willing to ask tough questions and not beholden to special interests.

"One of the most important differences between myself and my opponent is I'm an academic who taught at two colleges before I ran for the board," Pearlman said. "I know the colleges, understand accreditation and the need for student success. It's a big difference to have somebody like me who cares about the colleges and wants to make a difference. I'm in Jerry Brown's old seat, so I know there are people like my opponent who wants to use it as a political steppingstone.

"There should be some of us who … want to focus on community colleges and not go anywhere."

Vela, 38, began community organizing as a student at UCLA and then went on to serve as a legislative assistant to former Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg and a field deputy for L.A. County Supervisor Gloria Molina. He was elected to the Montebello Unified School District Board of Education in 2007 and also is chief of staff for Assemblyman Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina).

In Montebello, Vela has supported campaigns to raise attendance rates and fight bullying. He has won the support of major labor unions, drawing more than $380,000 cash and non-cash contributions, compared with Pearlman's $17,800 in mostly small cash donations, according to campaign finance statements.

Vela said he would focus on student needs and not be influenced by those contributions or other outside interests.

"My opponent is a nice person but … she has approved policies, budget policies in particular, that have led to fewer courses and course availability, increasing the amount of time it takes a student to transfer to a university," Vela said. "I will ensure that we make more courses available, with courses cut back through the years put back in place. That will mean hiring back some of the instructors we cut, but it's also going to take balancing the budget in ways that don't affect students and course availability."

Vela said he wants to work with universities like UCLA to improve summer bridge programs for students who need remedial courses and forge partnerships with local industries to create job training programs with City, Trade-Tech and other campuses.

Pearlman trailed Vela in the March 5 primary, with neither winning a majority in the field of four. Tuesday's election may be among the last races of its kind. Legislation passed last year intended specifically for the huge Los Angeles district may bring an end to runoffs, allowing the top vote-getter in the primary election to win a seat even if he or she doesn't get a majority.

The new law could save taxpayers $3 million to $5 million. On Tuesday's ballot, the trustees' race is the only contest in 39 of the 40 cities within district boundaries, according to the Los Angeles city clerk, and is expected to attract a low turnout.

Although the Los Angeles district sponsored the legislation, it is unclear if and when it will adopt the new election format, said board president Steve Veres. The costs this year will be shared with the city of Los Angeles.

The law gives the district the option to change the timetable for trustee elections. "Just because we're able to do it doesn't mean we will do it," Veres said.

Vela said the top vote-getter format is preferable because the primary election is more reflective of Los Angeles' diverse communities. Pearlman, who initially supported the format, has changed her mind.

"I originally thought it would be nice to save the district money; however, I would not have the opportunity to win the election if that had been the case," she said.

She supports the so-called "instant runoff," in which voters indicate both a first and a second choice, avoiding the costs of a second election.

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