Peralta Community Colleges Faculty Warn of Misspending as Bond Measure Looms

Peralta Community Colleges find themselves in a catch-22 as they allege financial mismanagement by administrators and campaign for more public funding for the system.

October 1, 2018
 

Northern California voters will consider two ballot measures in November on funding for the Peralta Community College District. As voters decide whether to give the community college system more money, they'll also have to consider whether they believe accusations that district administrators misspent past public funding.

The ballot requests for more money have led to a larger debate about whether Peralta's current leaders can provide adequate financial oversight of the system's budget and address concerns that administrators put more money in their own pockets instead of into the college. Peralta's faculty and staff have accused Chancellor Jowel Laguerre and his administration of misappropriating money from a voter-approved 2012 parcel tax -- the same one the district is asking voters to extend -- and spending it on administrative expenses instead of enhancing instruction.

Those administrators, led by Laguerre, dispute the accusations. He said he plans to provide further clarity to voters in the coming days proving that the faculty allegations are false.

"As chancellor, I believe strongly in transparency," Laguerre said in a statement to Inside Higher Ed.

The ballot question is asking voters to renew a $48-per-parcel property tax for eight years to raise $8 million a year for the four community colleges in the Oakland area district. The parcel tax would support classroom instruction. There is also an $800 million bond measure on the ballot to upgrade classrooms, science labs and job-training facilities.

Despite the criticisms and allegations Peralta's faculty members have lodged at Laguerre, his administration and the district's Board of Trustees, faculty have been encouraging voters to support the ballot measures.

Blake Johnson, a history instructor at Laney College, said he recognizes the unusual circumstance he and his colleagues are in as they call for new leadership and allege ineffective fiscal stewardship, and at the same time, support more funding for Peralta.

"It is unusual to have any public employee come out and be critical of the administration when going after a bond measure and the parcel tax," he said. "But the major reason myself and a lot of us are getting involved is because Peralta’s reputation on the state level is poor. It’s not necessarily the laughingstock of the California Community College system, but it's known to be corrupt."

Earlier this month Johnson filed a complaint with the California Fair Political Practices Commission alleging Peralta trustee Linda Handy violated campaign finance laws by not repaying loans for a political consultant. Handy is up for re-election. She didn't respond to requests for comment.

The conflict in Peralta is also unique because faculty, trustees and administrators tend to lower the tensions among themselves and within the college during an election year.

"This situation is very unusual," Terry O'Banion, chair of the graduate faculty at National American University and former president of the League for Innovation in Community College, said in an email. "Very few college leaders would go after local bond funds if there was this kind of stress in the institution."

He said Peralta's faculty may be "cutting off their noses to spite their faces" by making these allegations now.

Jennifer Shanoski, president of the Peralta Federation of Teachers and a chemistry instructor at Merritt College, said the faculty finds itself in "a catch-22.”

“We know we need this money. Our infrastructure is crumbling and the facilities are not adequate for students," she said. "The problem is we don’t have a lot of confidence in the way the current administration has been spending that money.”

As a result, the faculty union has endorsed the challengers of two incumbent members of the Board of Trustees -- Handy and Bill Riley.

Laguerre, the district’s chancellor, said several false accusations were made about his administration in Oakland-area media. He disputes a claim by faculty that a larger portion of the money raised through property taxes was spent on administrators' salaries than on classroom instruction.

“Over the past several years, we have increased the percentage of funding from [the parcel tax] to directly support faculty, lower class sizes and support student services through tutoring, instructional aides and counseling to ensure the overall well-being of our students,” he said.

Laguerre points to a 2017 audit of the parcel tax as evidence that the money has been spent as promised to voters.

The audit does show that funding for faculty salaries, books and supplies practically doubled from 2013, after voters approved the tax, to 2014. But funding in those areas decreased substantially since that time. For example, funding for books and supplies went from $112,150 in 2015, the year Laguerre began his tenure as chancellor, to about $84,000 in 2016.

The audit ultimately concluded that the district used the parcel tax funds for the purposes and activities approved by voters.

“The fact is, with the current budget shortfall … funds have been critical for us to provide direct support for faculty and students,” Laguerre said. “Without these funds, I believe it will be challenging for us to provide the same level of service that they have come to rely on and expect.”

Still, in the dispute over Peralta’s finances the district’s Citizens Oversight Committee chairman, Michael Mills, resigned in August. He filed a ballot argument against extending the tax because of what he says is the misuse of the funds.

“Since 2015, taxpayer money has been shifted from the colleges, classrooms and students to pay for non-academic District office expenditures,” according to Mills’ statement.

Johnson and Shanoski both agree the colleges need the funding, especially as student enrollment has decreased. Enrollment fell from about 53,000 students in 2012 to 50,864 in 2017, according to state data. Meanwhile, the number of administrators grew from 51 to 74 during that same period.

"We know we need the money," Shanoski said. "But we also know we need better oversight."

Meanwhile, Laguerre said, the administration is preparing to release a report soon that will provide information about the district’s finances and refute the accusations of misspending.

“With the high cost of college constantly in the news, I believe that voters in our community understand the value and importance of their local community colleges,” he said.

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