Coast board takes issue with letter to education department

In a sometimes-tense meeting of the Coast Community College District trustees Wednesday, local college officials decided to distance themselves from a letter criticizing the body that oversees accreditation for two-year colleges in California and elsewhere.

The district is in the middle of an accreditation process to determine if its colleges meet requirements for the stamp of educational quality backed by the U.S. Department of Education.

Coast’s three colleges — Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, Golden West College in Huntington Beach and Coastline Community College, which has campuses in several locations, including Newport Beach — each received warnings about practices they must change or risk losing their accreditation.

District Trustee Jerry Patterson sent a letter Tuesday to the Department of Education requesting an investigation into the decision by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) to issue those warnings.

But other trustees took what he wrote as an affront, saying they played no part in crafting the letter.

“I think it’s an incendiary letter, and I think it may very well blow up in our faces,” Trustee Mary Hornbuckle said.

The board voted 3 to 2 to send another letter stating that Patterson’s views don’t represent the full board.

Many of ACCJC’s warnings involved the board of trustee’s own governance practices, such as certain employees answering directly to the board instead of the chancellor.

In the letter, Patterson defended those practices by saying they were implemented to right serious wrongs in years past, such as salary manipulation, secret meetings and favoritism in large contracts.

Hornbuckle said the letter only represents Patterson’s skewed view of the past.

“If I were at the Department of Education and got this letter, I would think, ‘Wow, there’s a district in serious trouble,’ and I might send somebody out here to investigate,” Hornbuckle said.

Patterson found support from one fellow trustee, Jim Moreno, who has recently joined him in the minority on some contentious votes.

Both trustees referenced recent Los Angeles Times articles about the ACCJC coming under fire from the Department of Education, which questioned the organization’s review process of City College of San Francisco that ended in a decision to revoke accreditation.

Despite personal views, board President Lorraine Prinsky said trustees should not let Coast’s accreditation warnings get tangled up with another college’s issues or complaints against the ACCJC.

“We’re not going to solve these problems that we know we have by trying to discredit the commission,” Trustee David Grant said. “That’s not going to be the solution here. Our solution is to solve our problems ourselves.”

Hornbuckle said Patterson’s letter only reinforces ACCJC’s complaints about Coast’s practices.

“You’re acting on your own outside the scope of our position as a board of trustees,” she said. “We have no individual authority as individuals. We only have authority as a board of trustees, and that’s what the ACCJC has been warning about.”