Six months into its tenure, the newly constituted Peralta Community Colleges Board of Trustees has gotten mixed reviews.
Veteran board observer Michael Mills said the board is “acquitting itself quite respectfully,” but veteran Board Member Linda Handy said that the group “hasn’t yet found its balance.”
Three and a half years ago, the League of Women Voters of Berkeley, Albany, and Emeryville released a study in which it severely criticized the Peralta trustees.
The group wrote, in part, “the trustees’ money management style ... remains a source of sharp criticism from the press and the faculty.”
The study referred to various newspaper stories in the spring of 2001 which highlighted foreign board trips to places such as China and South Africa in search of increased enrollment of foreign students.
“The trustees are also being questioned about their oversight of contracts between the district and external suppliers,” the league wrote. “In the spring of 2001, for example, a $4 million no-bid contract with a computer installation firm came before the board with very skimpy notice and no hard numbers in the contract. Under criticism, the board rolled over an existing contract with the firm for a much smaller sum, but their casual attitude about spelling out contract limits continues.”
Four of the board’s seven members chose not to run for re-election last year, leading to their replacement by trustees Nicky Gonzalez Yuen, Bill Withrow, Marcie Hodge, and Cy Gulassa. Their first six months has been marked by increasing board oversight over the district’s fiscal matters, sometimes leading to sharp clashes between board members and staff as well as between board members themselves.
To Mills, president of the Peralta Federation of Teachers (PFT), that oversight is a good thing.
“The previous board was too accepting of what the district administration presented to them,” Mills said in a telephone interview. “It made me wonder what their role was. So last December, when the new board took office, the PFT asked for three things from them. We wanted them to demand more information from the district first, before making decisions. We wanted them to ask questions and not be passive. And we wanted them to avoid any conflicts of interest. On those accounts, they’ve done a good job. From a PFT perspective, I’m pleased. We’ve seen a significant improvement in board conduct.”
Board Vice President Linda Handy was not on the Peralta Trustee Board during the period of the critical League of Woman Voters’ study and was elected in part because of community fiscal concerns about former Peralta Chancellor Ronald Temple.
During her 2003 campaign, Handy wrote: “This is a question about who is the boss and I do not believe that the board as a whole has exercised its appropriate authority in managing the chancellor’s performance.”
For her part, Handy said she is not yet convinced that the new board has reached its oversight potential over the regime of Chancellor Elihu Harris, who replaced Temple shortly after Handy was elected to the board.
“The board has shown a lot of interest in strategic planning and in the raising of industry standards within the district, and that has made me happy,” Handy said. “Everyone wins with that. But we haven’t yet been able to maximize the benefit of the talents of the new members. If we ever can, it will be a tremendous asset to the district.”
She praised newcomer Withrow for his “wealth of experience in organizational development and in raising the bar of professionalism,” and Gulassa and Gonzalez Yuen for their “background in education that allows them to bring a good awareness of the needs of a community college district.”
But she said that Gulassa and Gonzalez Yuen, both of whom are community college professors, “are still learning how to separate their roles as a staff member from their roles as trustees. It’s a different responsibility entirely. So as a board, we haven’t yet found a balance between doing our jobs as trustees while not interfering with the tasks of the people we’re overseeing. I think, sometimes, we’re all over the place.”
Handy and Gonzalez Yuen have generated the most clashes between Peralta trustees. The two sit next to each other at meetings, and often continue sometimes-animated discussions on their own, mostly over fiscal oversight issues.
Gonzalez Yuen’s 2004 campaign platform sounded similar to the one that Handy ran on the year before. One of Gonzalez Yuen’s campaign goals was “openness and accountability,” which he described as “creating the administrative and fiscal conditions for the district to focus on its primary mission of providing a great education to students; and creating an open and inclusive process of governance, especially in the areas of budget and finance.”
Even before the four new board members took office in mid-December, the controversy that dominated the new board for the next six months was already being dropped in its lap by the outgoing board. In its final meeting, the outgoing board approved contract negotiations with Oakland developer Alan Dones to put together a development plan for Laney College and Peralta administration lands.
Handy was a supporter of the proposed contract, while Gonzalez Yuen was one of its most vocal critics on the board.
The proposed contract generated much heat, both from the public at trustee board meetings and in the press, and was eventually dropped altogether last May when Dones voluntarily withdrew his proposal.
But while the Dones contract was getting the most press attention, the board has been quietly working to put the district’s oversight house in order.
“The style of decisions in the board in the past has been rather abrupt and often without very careful inclusion of all the interested parties in the process,” newcomer Cy Gulassa told the Daily Planet last January. “We have to clarify the board procedures so we don’t have surprises and we don’t invite hasty decisions.”
Last January, after hearing repeated requests for more money for the $65 million Vista College construction project, trustees passed a new policy mandating increased board oversight for cost overrun requests, requiring that except in emergency circumstances, the requests come to the board before the money is spent.
Trustees now require that the district’s chief financial officer and its general counsel both sign off on construction requests meeting certain criteria, ending the practice in which those requests passed solely through the director of general services. And late last month, trustees authorized an independent assessment of the district’s information technology operations, effectively saying that it was difficult for the district’s staff to assess itself.
While Handy gives some of the credit for the changes to the newly-elected board members, she doesn’t give all of it.
“There is a constant flow of issues that are ongoing, and the new board has simply become a part of that,” Handy said. “As [Chancellor] Elihu [Harris] says, there’s no stop and start to district business. So there’s no ‘this year’s board’ for me. It’s just the board.”›