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It’s a Board, but More Than a Springboard

<i> Frank del Olmo is a Times editorial writer</i>

The Los Angeles Community College Board of Trustees, usually one of the least-noticed political bodies in town, is suddenly under intense scrutiny by Latinos here. While the attention comes not a moment too soon, one hopes that it is for the right reason.

While it gets relatively little attention compared to the Los Angeles City Council and even the Board of Education, the community college board has in recent years played a significant role in local politics. Almost 100,000 students were enrolled at the district’s nine campuses in 1984-85, a school year marked by declining enrollments and serious financial problems. Still, the board is best known to local voters as a springboard for young politicians who serve on it briefly before moving on to bigger things. Among noteworthy alumni who began their public careers on the board are former Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., Los Angeles Dist. Atty. Ira Reiner, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich and newly elected Los Angeles City Controller Rick Tuttle.

It is Tuttle’s seat that the six remaining board members must move to fill within the next couple of months, either by appointment or by calling a special election. Political activists of various ethnic backgrounds are maneuvering to see if they can get themselves appointed to the board by garnering support not just from board members but also from key political leaders such as Mayor Tom Bradley and Democratic Reps. Howard L. Berman and Henry A. Waxman, who control a potent political organization on the Westside.

Latino activists want someone from their community to get the post, and some influential Latino politicians, including state Assembly members Richard Alatorre (D-Los Angeles) and Gloria Molina (D-East Los Angeles) and Board of Education member Larry Gonzalez, are lending their weight to the campaign. Among the possible candidates being touted are Leticia Quezada, an executive with Carnation Co., Alberto Juarez, an aide to Bradley, USC professor David Lopez-Lee and former city commissioner Louis Moret. All but Quezada have been unsuccessful candidates for local public office in the past--Juarez running for the school board, Lopez-Lee and Moret for the City Council. Quezada considered a campaign for the school board two years ago, but did not run.

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At first glance the idea of getting a Latino named to the board might look like a power play, motivated by nothing more than a desire to get a young Latino politician onto a key local body from which his career can advance. But there should be more to it than that. The reasons can be seen in these statistics:

First is the breakdown of scholarships awarded this year by the Youth Opportunities Foundation, which for 20 years has quietly been handing out college money to what it proudly calls “the best and the brightest” Latino high-school students in California. The foundation gave awards to 253 Latinos this year who rank among the top 10% of all graduating seniors in the United States. The foundation’s fact sheet indicates that 51% of these fine young people will attend the University of California and 33% will go to private colleges, including such prestigious institutions as Harvard, Princeton and Stanford. Only 2%--five students--will be attending community colleges.

Compare those figures to a recent estimate by the American Assn. of State Colleges and Universities that 54% of all Latino college students in this country attend two-year public institutions. Or the results of a recent survey by a special task force of the state office of community colleges that found that 80% of California Latinos in higher education are enrolled at community colleges, and that only 10% of them can expect to transfer to a four-year university.

Clearly the ranks of Latino students who can be called “the best and the brightest,” while impressive, are thin. And, while they all deserve help and encouragement, who speaks up for the vast majority of Latino high-school graduates? The ones who may never get to Berkeley or Cambridge, but will struggle through East Los Angeles College?

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Latinos take legitimate pride in pointing to their young people who attend Yale and win Rhodes scholarships. Their achievements provide some compensation for all the dreary statistics about high-school dropouts and news stories about gangs and school violence.

But the achievements of the few should not obscure the needs of the many. It is vital that Latinos in junior colleges have someone to speak for their interests. One logical place for that Latino to be is on the Los Angeles Community College board, which serves one of the largest junior- college districts in the nation, and a region with roughly 4 million Latino residents.

But that person must not be just another ambitious pol biding his time until something better comes along, because the needs are too great. The “best and the brightest” Latino politicians must look beyond the glamour jobs and apply their efforts where they are most needed.


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