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Union-backed candidates lead in L.A. Community College District races

A man walks outside the campus of Los Angeles Trade-Technical College
Los Angeles Trade-Technical College and the eight other community campuses in the district enroll about 230,000 students, most of them Black or Latino and from low-income households.
(Glenn Koenig / Los Angeles Times)

Three incumbents and one newcomer appear headed to win a majority of seats on the governing body of the Los Angeles Community College District, reflecting the deep influence of the system’s faculty union that poured money and support into the campaigns of the expected winners.

Current board President Andra Hoffman and incumbents David Vela and Mike Fong held strong leads Wednesday evening, according to tallies from the L.A. County registrar’s office. Newcomer Nichelle Henderson held a substantial lead over incumbent Scott Svonkin. Though the results are not final, the outcomes are unlikely to change given the size of the leads.

The three other seats on the board were not up for election this year.

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Hoffman, the only woman currently on the board, said the election of Henderson, a Black woman and teacher at Cal State L.A., was “long overdue” to ensure that the board represents and understands the students it serves.

“Our faculty and our students and our staff … feel very underrepresented and misunderstood and not heard, and they’ve been crying out and really demanding that there may be more African American representation at all levels in our system … and it starts with the board,” Hoffman said. “I also think having another woman on the board will … shift some of the priorities.”

The Los Angeles College Faculty Guild, the union that represents teachers in the district, spent heavily on political mailers and phone banking for the four expected winners.

Although the guild and the district just signed a new three-year contract, salary and benefits issues are likely to be renegotiated next year, and other issues related to faculty’s working conditions could also come up.

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“The power of the guild is phenomenal in these elections,” said Mona Field, who served as a trustee from 1999 to 2015.

“Each of the seats had over a million people who voted total,” Field said. “You don’t reach a million people without a lot of money.”

This year was the first when the trustees’ election coincided with a general presidential election; under previous rules, board seats were decided in March of odd-numbered years.

Joanne Waddell, president of the guild, was not available for comment but said at the board’s regularly scheduled meeting Wednesday that the election was “decisive” and that she looked forward to a return of “stability and civility” to the board. Waddell and others have said that Svonkin fostered a hostile and combative atmosphere.

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In an interview Wednesday, Svonkin called those allegations “baseless” and “purely political.”

“I’m very proud that I’ve fought for students for nine years, and I’ve fought waste and misuse of public funds,” he said. “I delivered free college for thousands of students in Los Angeles … and I led the effort for the last bond that passed that was $3.3 billion to give Los Angeles the best facilities.”

Hoffman, an administrator at Glendale Community College who in 2015 narrowly defeated the union-backed candidate for her seat with a fraction of the funds, said she believed she had proved herself to voters, both in her five years on the board and in her 23-year career in community colleges. But, she said, campaigning with the support of the union this time around was “definitely easier.”

The new board will quickly be faced with the immediate challenges related to COVID-19 and distance learning, which have hit low-income, Black and Latino students — who make up the majority of the district’s roughly 230,000 students — particularly hard. In addition, the LACCD has had to contend with slipping enrollment, low rates of degree completion and transfer, and the fact that most of its students need many nonacademic supports, such as help with food, housing and child care, in order to remain enrolled and complete their academic goals.

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“There’s a lot at stake — equity, equality and the future economic recovery of the county,” Hoffman said. “The community colleges train firefighters, we train early childhood educators, and we can really be engines and partners in the economic recovery of this region.”

Henderson’s arrival could also shift or consolidate the balance on the board in terms of support for LACCD Chancellor Francisco Rodriguez, who was appointed in 2014, has mixed support among the current board members and was granted a one-year contract extension at the end of last year.


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