With its nine campuses and annual enrollment of about 230,000 students, the Los Angeles Community College District is one of the most significant, yet little-watched, public institutions in Southern California. It offers programs and classes for young people entering vocational careers, provides students with less-than-stellar high school records a chance to restore some academic credibility, gives high-performing high schoolers an early taste of college, and allows low- and middle-income students a cheap way to earn credits before transferring to a four-year college.
Unfortunately, LACCD struggles with many of those missions. Only one of its nine colleges, Pierce College in Woodland Hills, exceeds the state average for community colleges across a range of student success metrics, including the percentage of students earning an associate’s degree or sufficient credits to transfer within six years, and those making progress in remedial English, ESL, or math courses.
District officials argue that their students face more hurdles than those elsewhere in the state, and there’s some truth to that. Los Angeles County’s poverty rate is among the state’s highest, and the cost of living is inordinately steep here. Half the students who attend community college in the district live below the poverty line. They’re overwhelmingly from Latino and non-white backgrounds, and a significant number are homeless, living in cars or on friends’ couches. Those conditions pose distinct challenges.
There have been some positive steps, including the launching of the Los Angeles College Promise program, which offers a free year’s tuition to Los Angeles Unified School District students (beginning with those who will graduate this spring) who otherwise would not qualify for free tuition; new efforts to support students recently emancipated from foster care and those leaving jail or prison, and a program that allows high schoolers to take remedial courses to prepare them for when they enroll.
Yet the district does not have a system for tracking what happens to students once they leave their college, and has limited ways of measuring whether they have added to the quality of the students’ lives. If a student is working in a fast-food restaurant when she enters community college and is still at that level of the economy after graduating, there are grounds to wonder how effective the education has been.
The district’s elected board of trustees, in fairness, works part-time for $2,000 a month per trustee, and while there’s little doubt the trustees are committed to the work, the district ought to look at a better and more professional governance structure, such as moving to an appointed board.
With that overview in mind, these are our recommendations for the trustee seats in the March 7 election.
Seat 2: The Times recommends a vote for Steven Veres. The only other serious candidate for the seat is Thomas J. Norman, a management and marketing professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills who, while offering a fresh set of eyes, doesn’t seem to grasp the scope of the problems facing the LACCD. (Two other candidates, Steve Goldstein and Sergio Vargas, have been invisible in the race.) Veres, an aide to state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de Leon, served one term as a district trustee before launching an unsuccessful City Council bid in 2015. His knowledge of the district and Sacramento, whence the district gets much of its funding, make him the better candidate.
Seat 4: Ernest H. Moreno is the clear choice. A retired district administrator (and former president of East Los Angeles Community College), Moreno possesses an impressive level of institutional knowledge, albeit heavy on the financial and operational side. His challenger, Dallas Denise Fowler, is a Democratic activist who has injected an unwelcome level of partisanship into a non-partisan race.
Seat 6: We endorse challenger Gabriel Buelna, an ethnic studies teacher at Cal State Northridge and executive director of Plaza Community Services in East L.A. The incumbent, Nancy Pearlman, has in her 16 years as a trustee been a gadfly, persistently challenging the board and district administrators. While important, that’s too limited a role, and Pearlman has few significant policies to show for her time there. Buelna not only has experience with the district’s graduates entering Northridge, but he has a ground-level view through Plaza Community Services of the challenges many LACCD students face.