High surf hits the Southland
Local

Candidates for L.A. Community College District board urge greater scrutiny of system

FinanceColleges and UniversitiesConstructionSchoolsContractsJohn ChiangLee Baca

Several candidates for the Los Angeles Community College District Board of Trustees urged state officials Tuesday to expand their scrutiny of the college system in the wake of a Times series that detailed millions of dollars of waste in the district's massive building program.

The candidates, running on a slate that they say will back reform of the district, held a news conference to urge voters in the March 8 election to oust two board incumbents seeking to retain their seats. The two are among 16 candidates vying for four of the board's seven seats, all of which are elected at-large.

The nine-campus district has long been criticized for its poor graduation rates and the low number of students transferring to four-year universities. But the focus of most of the campaigns shifted this week to its $5.7-billion bond construction program after the investigation by The Times found that tens of millions of dollars have been wasted because of inadequate planning, shoddy workmanship and questionable spending to upgrade classrooms, libraries, stadiums and other facilities.

The Times' series, which runs through Sunday, also has shown that most of the trustees, including Mona Field and Miguel Santiago, both candidates in the election, accepted donations from builders and others who won contracts from the board.

In January, state Controller John Chiang launched an audit into use of state funds in the bond program. A spokesman for Chiang said the agency expects to complete the inquiry in April.

"We have been saying all along that the trustees have breached their fiduciary duty," said Jozef Thomas Essavi, 36, a Valley Glen businessman who is running against Field for Office 1. He was among those taking part in the news conference, held near Los Angeles City College. "We have a situation where we have left the wolves and foxes in charge of the hen house."

In an interview, Field said that given the size of the construction project, errors were bound to occur but that it has generally run smoothly. Most issues raised by The Times investigation have been addressed, she added. Said she had not been influenced by any donations.

"Despite problems, our project has been really outstanding and good for the community; students for the next number of decades are going to benefit," said Field, 57, a retired college professor who joined the board in 1999.

Other candidates for Office 1 include retired educator Gwen Walker, community center director Oswaldo Lopez and Los Angeles city workforce board member Derrick Mims.

For Office 7, North Hills entrepreneur Erick Aguirre, another reform slate candidate, is challenging incumbent Miguel Santiago, 37, a Winnetka consultant who joined the board in 2008.

Santiago said he began working to improve oversight of the bond program as soon as he took office, leading efforts to appoint an inspector general and create a whistle-blower office.

He said campaign donations have not influenced his decision-making. "I have followed all the rules and the board is largely insulated from choices about who works on campuses," he said. "Questions had been raised by the time I came on board, and I have taken those very seriously."

Aguirre, 46, who spoke at a Monday candidates forum in Culver City, said he would work to expand academic and vocational courses but said the board needed to be completely revamped.

"The only way we're going to change the board is to change the face of the board," he said.

Seven candidates are competing for an open seat for Office 5, among them Lydia A. Gutierrez, who said Tuesday that if elected, she would call for the firing of Larry Eisenberg, the district official in charge of the construction program.

Gutierrez, 53, a Long Beach Unified School District teacher from San Pedro who spoke at the news conference, also called for an inquiry by California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott. "His voice should be heard. Where is the accountability?" she said.

Scott Svonkin, a senior advisor to L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca and a candidate for the same seat, said that if elected he would call for an independent audit to ensure that the district is spending all of its funds prudently and initiate a policy forbidding preferential treatment for family members of trustees and administrators.

"My No. 1 goal is to fix the district's problems, then refocus on students," said Svonkin, 45, of San Gabriel, a member of the San Gabriel Unified School District Board of Trustees.

Also running for Office 5 are Manuel Aldana Jr., educator Octavio Pescador, youth advocate Nicole Michelle Chase, Pamela R. Bolin and Mark Lee.

In the race for open Office 3, Steven Veres, a college teacher, faces educator Joyce Burrell Garcia.

Veres, 35, a San Fernando city councilman whose term expires next week, said he would work to make board meetings and records more accessible to the public and more aggressively seek state funding for community colleges.

Garcia, a member of the slate of reform candidates, appeared at the Culver City forum and said she would work to speed up student graduation and reduce the costs of textbooks.

carla.rivera@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
FinanceColleges and UniversitiesConstructionSchoolsContractsJohn ChiangLee Baca
Comments
Loading