An Orange County college district late Tuesday drew closer to approving a nearly $100-million consulting contract to help run two technical schools in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
The board of the Rancho Santiago Community College District Foundation directed attorneys to return with a final draft of the scaled-down contract for final approval, which officials say could happen within 30 days.
For months now, the contract has been criticized by some faculty members who say the board has kept the project away from public scrutiny in violation of the state's open meeting laws. They say that if the project fails the district could face a large financial liability.
But the proposed partnership is also being criticized because it involves Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy with a spotty human rights record. At least two nonprofit organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the Zionist Organization of America, have sent letters expressing concerns about the potential ramifications of the district operating schools in Saudi Arabia.
The ADL explained its reservations in a May 14 letter to college district Chancellor Raul Rodriguez.
"While we support programs that seek to establish collaborative relationships with universities in the Middle East, we do believe that special care must be taken when establishing programs where there are restrictions on the activities of programs based on characteristics such as religion, gender, national origin or sexual orientation," the letter read in part.
At Tuesday's meeting, held at Rancho Santiago Community College District in Santa Ana, the board attempted to respond to some of those concerns.
Robert Feldhake, an attorney for the foundation, an auxiliary of the district that raises money for it and bid for the contract with Saudi Arabia, said that the college district itself would not face liability.
He also said that any potential violations of open meeting laws have been corrected.
But Barry Resnick, president of the faculty association of the district, said district officials should get an independent legal opinion on the issue.
"Do you really think an action brought in a California court would not name the district as well as the foundation?" he said.
The contract presented at the meeting was a slimmed-down version of the original agreement, which was expected to produce an estimated $105 million in revenue for the foundation over five years. Officials say the new contract reduces that amount by $20 million.
The district's chancellor, Raul Rodriguez, said that under the previous contract, the foundation would have been responsible for making upgrades at the Saudi Arabian schools, such as by installing elevators and Wi-Fi networks. That no longer will be the case, he said.
Last month, Rodriguez said that the district's primary role in Saudi Arabia would be to provide consulting services and to help train faculty and set curricula for the all-male schools.
"It's not an endorsement," he said at the time. "We're in no way condoning the views and stance of the Saudi government."
Rodriguez added: "You have to walk a fine line about what our beliefs in the U.S. are and the customs and culture of Saudi Arabia."
At least two board members said they understood the concerns about doing business in Saudi Arabia, yet still supported the deal.
"Isolation and barriers do nothing to build bridges across cultures or effect change," said board member Arianna Barrios. "The foundation's project with Saudi Arabia promotes education, cultural understanding and will facilitate progressive change."