Withrow Expected to Take Helm of New Peralta Board

By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Friday December 01, 2006


With Area 1 (Alameda) trustee Bill Withrow widely expected to take over as board president in December, the Peralta Board of Trustees will have a decidedly different character and look in the coming year than it had as recently as two years ago. 

After years at the center of scandal and turmoil, the Peralta Board has seen a complete turnover in two years, with only Area 5 (Oakland hills) trustee Bill Riley as the lone holdover from the years when former chancellor Ron Temple ran the district. 

Current board president Linda Handy won her Area 3 (Central East Oakland) seat in 2002 against incumbent Brenda Knight, a Temple supporter, and four of the current board members—Withrow, Marcie Hodge, Nicky Gonzalez-Yuen, and Cy Gulassa—came on in 2004 when the incumbents in their districts chose not to run. Area 7 (Downtown/West Oakland) trustee Alona Clifton lost her seat to challenger Abel Guillen in the election earlier this month. Guillen does not take office until mid-December. 

Meanwhile, beginning with Handy’s election in 2002, the board began to tighten up operations at the four-college district, firing Temple and replacing him with Elihu Harris. Those reforms escalated following the 2004 election, with added fiscal oversight and controls slowly put into place. 

While several board members contacted for this story called Withrow the odds-on-favorite to become the new board president, the election to replace Withrow as the board’s vice-chair was still up in the air on Thursday, with Cy Gulassa considered the front runner, but not a lock for election. 

Handy, whom Withrow is expected to replace as board president, called Withrow “one of the best members of the board. He has the time to put into the district. He’s a really smart guy, with a vast amount of experience.” 

Withrow, one of the leaders of Peralta’s fiscal reform movement, says he intends to continue that work in the next year as the expected head of Peralta’s board. 

“We’re reaching the end of the strategic planning process,” Withrow said, explaining the district’s goal of reducing its plans and projects to a single document. “The top priority will be its implementation. We want it to be a living document. We don’t want it just to sit on the shelf.” 

A second goal, Withrow said, will be to begin spending the money from the district’s $390 million Measure A facilities construction bond, which was passed overwhelmingly by area voters in June but has recently come under criticism from board members and staff for a lack of clearly-stated projects. 

“The building programs authorized by the bond need to get underway,” Withrow said. With the exception of the newly-completed Berkeley City College, he noted that “our colleges are in dire need of refurbishment and restructure so that they fit the needs of today, rather than the needs of 40 years ago.” 

While Withrow said that the Peralta district should be praised for slightly increasing enrollment at a time when enrollment in most of California’s community colleges is declining, “we’ve got to have a concerted effort to increase it.” 

Withrow noted that while the population from which the City College of San Francisco draws its enrollment is almost identical in number to Peralta’s, 675,000, CCSF has an enrollment of 125,000, while the four Peralta colleges total only 30,000. 

“There’s no simple answer as to why there is such a difference between the two,” he said. 

One of the ways Withrow believes Peralta can increase enrollment is by recruiting area students earlier in the process. “We need to brand Peralta at the middle school level,” he said. “If we can convince 20 percent of the students attending middle schools in our service area to entertain postsecondary education, there is no doubt that it will encourage more of them to get through high school, and some of those will make their way to the Peralta schools.” 

A final goal, Withrow said, is the reduction of book costs for students. “We already have a tremendous tuition cost,” he said, noting that by “tremendous” he meant “good for the students.” “Our students average $600 a year for a full course load, compared to a $3,000 national average for two year institutions. Given the student population we serve, $600 is a lot of money, but California has by far the cheapest two year institution tuition in the country. Nobody else comes close to us.” 

But Withrow said that the cost of textbooks tends to be higher in California than in other states, citing the fact that some Peralta students can pay between $250 and $350 for a single textbook. 

The problem, he added, is not with the textbook companies. “It’s not a very profitable industry,” he said. “There’s not a lot there to squeeze.” 

Instead, Withrow said that he wants Peralta to cut book costs by such methods as contracting with books-on-demand publishers, or by limiting the number of book titles that can be assigned in a different course area, giving more opportunity for students to be able to purchase used books. He admitted that this would be a “controversial area,” since “faculty members want to be able to choose their own books.”