Endorsement: The Times endorses Hoffman, Anderson, Henderson and Han for LACCD
The Los Angeles Community College District is a vital part of the region’s educational infrastructure, offering a transition between high school and four-year college, certificates in vocational and technical training programs, one-off courses for the merely curious and a chance for older students to learn new skills. This fall, voters get to elect four members of the seven-member Board of Trustees. We recommend voters go with one incumbent — Andra Hoffman in Seat 1 — and three newcomers, Gerry Anderson in Seat 3, Nichelle Henderson in Seat 5 and Chris Han in Seat 7.
The way this election is being conducted raises significant concerns. In 2012, the trustees persuaded the state Legislature to pass a law letting the LACCD — and the LACCD alone — skip primary elections for their seats and have just one vote, in November, with each seat going to whomever wins a plurality of ballots cast, not a majority. The district saves $3 million or more by not holding that first round of votes, which remains its rationale for this egregious disruption of democracy that further stacks the deck in favor of incumbents and makes it likely that winning candidates will be selected by a minority of voters.
In this election, 33 candidates are running for the four seats, with a high of 10 contenders for Seat 3. So conceivably, a candidate for Seat 3 could win with as little as 10.1% of the vote — a preposterous situation. What kind of a mandate can a trustee possibly have with the backing of only a sliver of the people voting? Further, such a wide pool of candidates is too much for voters to consider in a general election. In just about any other race the field would be winnowed during a top-two primary, allowing for better vetting of the final two candidates and a general election winner supported by a majority of the voters. The college district is able to get away with this travesty because it attracts so little public scrutiny of its actions. Voters ought to demand that the district ditch this undemocratic process.
Also, the district clings to an outmoded at-large system in which all voters cast ballots for every seat; the seats are not tethered to a specific geography. Historically, such systems have made it more difficult for people of color to win elections. While the current board is somewhat diverse with four Latinos and one Asian, it includes only one woman and no Black members. The board needs to better reflect the broad and deeply diverse community that it works for. We recommend that the district assign its board seats to specific territories, each of which elects its own trustee, and that it consider expanding to nine seats with a single community college anchoring each one. That would help surface issues peculiar to the specific colleges, and increase the ability (though success remains elusive) of local communities to elect trustees more representative of them. Given the long string of successful legal challenges forcing other elected bodies to do away with at-large races, it’s remarkable that the courts haven’t already ordered the change.
The LACCD is a massive entity, with a $5.4-billion budget (including construction bonds) and nine colleges serving nearly 120,000 students enrolled in 265,000 classes. The district faces significant issues, including declining enrollment — something afflicting community college districts around the state and country — and a student body that suffers from high levels of homelessness and food insecurity. The district has crafted some programs to help, including partnering with nonprofits to find housing and provide free meals, but that has barely touched the problem. There is a philosophical question over whether taxpayer-funded community colleges conceived as commuter schools have a responsibility to offer their students food and housing, but we think there is much good to be gained by expanding the district’s cooperative efforts with outside organizations to help students in desperate need as they try to advance their educations and career potential.
The small village of candidates running this time covers a wide range of backgrounds, interests, levels of awareness of the role of the LACCD, and basic competence. The Times interviewed every candidate who responded to our invitation, some two dozen, and many offered complementary assessments of the problems facing the district, and possible solutions. Several candidates, though, failed to articulate coherent arguments for why they should be elected. We focused on candidates who put thought and effort into their campaigns, even if much of the campaigning has occurred online due to the pandemic.
It’s also notable that many of the candidates expressed concerns about the acrimonious debate at some board meetings. We share that concern. It’s not unusual for elected boards, often comprising strong and ambitious personalities, to have moments of friction. But the public deserves a higher level of behavior here, especially on a board that oversees a tier of public education. So rancorous has the board been that the trustees issued a formal warning to trustee Scott Svonkin after fellow trustee Hoffman complained that Svonkin sought to physically intimidate her and threatened her political career. The Times endorsed Svonkin when he ran for reelection five years ago, noting that “board watchers say Svonkin can be a bit rough around the edges, but he has shown he has the right constituencies — students and taxpayers — foremost in his mind.” Unfortunately, his continued abrasiveness has become a drag on the board and undermines public confidence. We do not recommend a vote for him this time around.
Seat 1: Andra Hoffman
An administrator in the Glendale Community College District, Hoffman was the best qualified for this seat when she first ran five years ago, and she has grown in knowledge and ability during her term (she currently serves as the board president, elected by her peers). She has pushed for protections for LGBTQ students as well as for students living here without permission since arriving as children, has supported expansion of job training and placement programs and is a leader on the California Community College Trustees board.
We note that Hoffman was among several district officials named in a whistleblower complaint filed last year by David Salazar, who had been hired to oversee the district’s $3.3-billion construction bond program, but a subsequent investigation found no merit to it. Absent other information, we don’t see this as an impediment to supporting Hoffman.
Seat 3: Gerry Anderson
Anderson, a business consultant and adjunct business instructor at West L.A. College and L.A. City College, rises above several other viable and promising options in this race. A Black Angeleno, Anderson would help broaden community representation on a board that lost its sole Black member two years ago. He’d also offer both an insider’s view of the system and an outsider’s experience of the world, adding welcome dimensions to the trustees’ deliberations. Anderson is a better choice than incumbent David Vela, a longtime aide to elected Democrats and head of his own political consulting firm, who was appointed to the seat two years ago.
Seat 5: Nichelle M. Henderson
A former middle school teacher who currently is a faculty advisor and lecturer in a Cal State program that helps students obtain teaching credentials, Henderson exhibits a firm grasp of how community colleges fit in the larger educational system, as well as the unusual needs of LACCD students facing homelessness, food insecurity and financial barriers to continuing their educations. Her heart is in the right place, and she recognizes that students often need help understanding the different ways colleges can support their efforts. Henderson also has political connections (she’s an elected Democratic Party committee member) and has played a role in the California Faculty Assn., which gives her labor experience but not in a union that will be negotiating contracts with LACCD. The combination of her assets and experience make her the best choice for this seat, which is now held by Svonkin.
Another candidate who impressed us was Cynthia Gonzalez, who recently failed in a bid for a seat on the Los Angeles Unified School District board. A high school principal in the district, she offers important insights into how students move from high school to college, but Henderson’s broader view of the education systems struck us as more useful.
Seat 7: Chris Han
Incumbent Mike Fong has established himself as inquisitive and knowledgeable — as one would expect for a someone whose day job is director of policy and government relations for the Los Angeles Department of Neighborhood Empowerment. But we believe challenger Han, a lawyer and adjunct instructor in business law at L.A. Mission College, is the better choice for this seat. Han has direct experience with students within the district, which gives him a ground-level perspective on district policies, and he espouses a wider, more macro view of the role and mission of the LACCD. He also pushes for more robust relations with mentoring and apprenticeship programs, which could be crucial in the next few years as the region continues to claw its way back from the economic disruptions of the coronavirus crisis.
Also impressive was Jamal Stewart, a city data analyst who exhibited insightful awareness of the basic issues facing the district (although, like so many other candidates, he proved to be too light on solutions). We urge him to find ways to gain more experience and remain engaged in public service.
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