Andres Ramos won his first race for public office when he was still a senior at USC in 2007, making the then-22-year-old among the youngest elected officials in California.
But shortly after securing a seat on the Compton Community College District Board of Trustees, Ramos thought: “What have I done?”
The board was stripped of its power by state legislators a decade ago after widespread corruption at the campus. Like the rest of the five-member board, Ramos sat in the audience after his election while a state-appointed administrator ran the meeting.
Even today, board members can’t officially vote or attend confidential, closed sessions. At times, they were even discouraged from participating in meetings.
“It made me wonder ‘why did I run for this? What am I doing?’” he said.
A decade ago, the board lost power over academic matters and all remaining decisions, such as the district’s $35-million annual budget and overseeing nearly 200 employees, are now made by a state-appointed administrator, Tom Henry.
Over the years, the arrangement has been a heated issue between the trustees and California officials — a former state superintendent barred board members from the meeting’s dais in 2004, called them obstructionists and reportedly said “I don’t want them in my way.”
But relations slowly have improved over recent years and Henry took a small, symbolic step recently by allowing the board to return to the dais full-time. Although they still can’t vote, Ramos and his colleagues say they appreciate the gesture.
“Nobody runs for office to sit in the audience,” he said.
Two other California community colleges also are led by state appointees. At San Francisco City College, the special administrator posted meeting agendas and accepted comments but did not meet with elected officials, although that policy recently changed. The College of the Redwoods board is allowed to vote on agenda matters but the appointee has veto power.
Founded in 1927, Compton Community College educated generations of students and became a point of pride in the community. During a building opening ceremony this spring, one speaker called the school California’s historically black college. Compton Mayor Aja Brown recalled how her mother got her nursing credential there.
But in 2004, state auditors found a budget shortfall of about $300,000 at the school. Trustees also had used college cars for personal reasons, and one trustee got into an accident on the Las Vegas Strip while driving a school vehicle. Others used college-issued credit cards for cash advances, according to previous Times stories.
After the state took over, the two-year school later lost its accreditation, making it ineligible for public funding. Auditors later found evidence of financial graft and a board member was sentenced to four years in prison for diverting nearly $1 million of district funds to himself and family members.
The state Legislature authorized a $30-million loan to the district in 2006 while also suspending the authority of the board. Later that year, nearby El Camino College District assumed control of the campus.
The Compton district was only left with power over non-academic matters at the 88-acre campus.
Ramos, a Lynwood resident who had campaigned for several politicians and attended Long Beach City College, ran a low-key effort, reaching out to some elected officials for endorsements but otherwise depending on word of mouth from friends and family.
Still, he said many were skeptical, asking: “Why are we electing you if you don’t have any real power?” Ramos recalled.
He ended up winning by fewer than 500 votes. When Ramos ran for reelection, he was unopposed.
Genethia Hudley-Hayes, who served as state administrator for about a year in 2011, said that Ramos and other trustees influenced some of her decisions, even though she often had a contentious relationship with them. At one point, she was considering giving the school’s chief executive more control over the budget but trustees felt it was too much responsibility.
“They were right,” Hudley-Hayes said.
Henry, the current administrator, also served in the position for about a year in 2006 and he didn’t allow the board to sit on the dais during meetings.
When he returned in 2011, he was planning on doing the same, but trustees were so adamant that Henry compromised and let them alternate between the dais and the audience.
“I didn’t want an insurrection on my hands,” he said.
Recently he stopped alternating, allowing members to sit at the dais full-time.
Trustees said they believe it’s important to represent the community, even though they have no official authority. Some have financed their campaigns out of their own pockets.
“I believe I’m making a contribution,” said board President Deborah LeBlanc, who teaches at an online university.
Ramos said the board’s relationship with administration has improved, partly because of better communication with Henry and other administrators. “It feels like we’re more aligned with each other,” he said.
At the April meeting, trustees remained in the audience as Henry and the district’s chief executive, Keith Curry, sat at the dais, surrounded by empty seats, and discussed the budget and trustee travel requests. Henry occasionally would ask LeBlanc if she or other trustees had questions and she would glance at her colleagues. “No, we do not,” she often said.
At the May meeting, trustees were allowed at the dais and participated more by asking questions about a building project. The funding had already been granted, but board members wanted to know if staff should have asked for previous approval.
Henry urged the board to carefully examine expenditures.
“When you get to a fiscal item, you can take as much time as you need,” he said. “This is very healthy [and] indicative of a healthy, engaging board.”
Henry has asked trustees to attend training sessions to help them prepare for the day when they might take over control of the district, although that process could take years and current members might not still be in office.
He was optimistic enough about their progress that he continues to let them sit at the dais.
But Henry had one reminder: “The gavel will stay with the special trustee.”