The Los Angeles Community College District has had its share of troubles over the last few years, some self-inflicted, others beyond its control. In 2011, a Times investigation of how it was using $5.7 billion in construction bonds revealed significant misspending, shoddy workmanship, inadequate oversight and cozy connections among some contractors, college administrators and members of the board of trustees. It was a mess, and it came in the midst of the state's budget meltdown, which meant sharp cutbacks in funding for the district.
After declaring a building moratorium, the board seems to have addressed some of the worst administrative failures, and construction has resumed. The district is also undergoing significant leadership changes. In June, Francisco C. Rodriguez was named chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District. Now four of the board's seven seats are on the March 3 ballot, with only one incumbent — board President Scott J. Svonkin — seeking reelection. Even he is a relative newcomer; campaigning as a reformer, Svonkin was elected four years ago, a few months before the construction scandal came to light.
Though the board elections are ostensibly nonpartisan, unions representing district employees and the county's Democratic Party wield significant electoral power because the campaigns are low-profile and thus easily dominated by targeted spending and a good get-out-the-vote operation. The board has made that even easier by adopting a system under which a candidate can win with a plurality of votes rather than having to face the No. 2 vote-getter in a runoff. Another structural weakness: All the candidates run districtwide, making it harder for minority voters living in geographical enclaves to get representation.
For most voters, the big question is: Who cares about a little-noticed board whose acronym (LACCD) few people can unscramble? The answer: We all should, because the board oversees a $3-billion budget and has a direct effect on the quality of education for 136,000 students, about half of whom live below the federal poverty line. Some are seeking credentials in vocational and technical fields; others are looking for a relatively inexpensive first two years of a four-year degree; and still others simply want to brush up on a foreign language or get a grounding in computer programming.
It takes vision, creativity and a good understanding of the region's political infrastructure to perform well as a trustee. Given the board's low visibility, it often has trouble attracting candidates who are fully up to the task. This time around, that has proved to be less of a problem. Here are The Times endorsements for each of the seats:
Seat 1: Of the four candidates for this seat, Andra Hoffman, an administrator and part-time teacher in the neighboring Glendale Community College District, is the most qualified. She has served on regional committees exploring community college policies, including the Community College League of California's legislative advisory committee. Thus, she offers intimate knowledge of the sometimes arcane world of higher education, but without overt loyalties to Los Angeles Community College District interest groups.
Seat 3: This race also has four contenders, and Sydney Kamlager deserves the vote. Her experience as an education advocate for nonprofit groups and as district director for state Sen. Holly Mitchell would be an asset. Of all the candidates for all the seats, Kamlager has the deepest understanding of how community colleges fit into the political and educational ecosystems. She intends to focus on expanding access to education for minority students and increasing support services for special-needs students, but also on working with local businesses and industries to firm up the district's role in training workers.
Seat 5: This is the only race with an incumbent, and though challenger Steve Schulte, a former West Hollywood City Council member and mayor, offers a vision for refocusing the district on student needs, Scott Svonkin, a former aide to L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca who currently handles public affairs for newly elected County Assessor Jeffrey Prang, has spent his first term as an advocate for transparency, oversight and financial prudence. Among other things, he led the board to establish a 10% reserve fund to protect against the next economic downturn. Board watchers say Svonkin can be a bit rough around the edges, but he has shown he has the right constituencies — students and taxpayers — foremost in his mind. He deserves another term.
Seat 7: Joyce Garcia has the kind of life experience that could bring a different perspective to the board. She has run a small business, taught in China and been active in faith-based and other nonprofit organizations. Unfortunately, though she identifies many of the right problems, she lacks a clear view of workable solutions. Mike Fong, an analyst for the city of Los Angeles' Economic and Workforce Development Department, brings a policy wonk's attention to detail in one of the main pillars of the district's mission: job training and placement. Like Kamlager, Fong has close ties to the Democratic Party infrastructure and, like Kamlager (and Hoffman, for that matter), may hope to use the seat as a springboard to higher office. But ambition is no stranger in politics. We recommend a vote for Fong, but also urge, should he win, that he lift his vision beyond his area of specialization and address the full range of issues facing the district.
Hoffman, Kamlager, Svonkin and Fong would bring different yet complementary strengths to the board: intimate knowledge of how community colleges work, experience moving people into jobs, and the kinds of political connections it takes to get things done. They would help push the Los Angeles Community College District into a better future.