The Los Angeles Community College District’s Seat 6 was the only one with an incumbent candidate running in the March elections. It was also the most vigorously contested of the three races. Perhaps in the wake of The Times’ 2011 series exposing waste and ethical lapses in the district’s expenditure of billions of dollars of bond money on new construction, opponents sensed that longtime board member Nancy Pearlman, one of the building program’s main advocates, was vulnerable.
That was especially true after David Vela, an aide to Assemblyman Roger Hernandez (D-West Covina), won the support of the major labor groups. Bolstered by that support, Vela received more votes than Pearlman, but neither came close to the majority needed to avoid a runoff.
The Times had endorsed Tom Oliver, the articulate and hard-charging former president of Pierce College, in the first round. But with Oliver out of the running, Pearlman is the better choice of the two remaining candidates. She speaks with deep knowledge about the district’s foibles and needs, and correctly identifies its most urgent challenge: providing students with better and more efficient remedial education. She has been more apt than most of her colleagues on the board to challenge the status quo, including some of the bond expenditures. She should continue to voice her concerns. Too few of the district’s 141,000 students reach their goals, and there are nearly perpetual accreditation problems at one college or another; this board can’t afford complacency.
Vela is an affable candidate but one with too little understanding of the task ahead. He speaks with justifiable pride about initiatives in the Montebello school district — such as a small, successful academy that guides students toward careers, and an anti-bullying program — but these minor accomplishments are dwarfed by the systemic reforms required at the colleges, such as state-mandated counseling to help more students complete their academic or career training.
One of Vela’s key campaign issues has been a vow to cut administrative costs, a common mantra of teachers unions. It might be possible to make more cuts, but that’s not the district’s top priority right now. Indeed, some of the reforms required by a recently passed state law — such as better tracking of students’ progress — might well justify increased administrative costs.
It’s worth noting that the campaign for Seat 6 — candidates run for particular seats though the elections are at-large — demonstrates why a new law governing community college elections was a mistake. The law allows districts to skip runoffs, so that the top vote-getter wins the seat even if his or her victory falls dramatically short of a majority. The Los Angeles district has not adopted the law as policy yet, and it shouldn’t. Voters tend to pay scant attention to these elections and, faced with a crowded field for a single seat, have too little opportunity to make an informed choice.