TWO REPORTS released last week portray the East Bay's second-largest community college district teetering on the edge due to a lack of leadership, fiscal responsibility and ethics among top administrators and elected trustees.
For seven years, the district was hamstrung by an inept and ethically challenged chancellor, Elihu Harris, the former Oakland mayor and state assemblyman who was never qualified to lead a community college district. Harris ran the district — which serves Alameda, Albany, Berkeley, Emeryville, Piedmont and Oakland — as if it were his own little fiefdom, awarding contracts to his business partner, handing out salary raises to his friends and running up extravagant charges on his district credit card.
While firing Harris was an important first step for resuscitating the district, that alone will not cure the patient. For, as reports by the Alameda County grand jury and the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges made clear last week, Harris was a big, but certainly not the only, cancer plaguing the school system.
With Harris gone, it's time for the district Board of Trustees to step up — to prove to the public that it is ready to lead by example. Unfortunately, as the grand jury concluded, "the board as a whole has failed to provide the leadership for the district to which they were elected." And the president of the accrediting commission warned of the "serious nature of its concerns about the fiscal solvency and stability of the district and about the district's governance systems."
As the grand jury points out, in a report sparked by this newspaper's investigations, rather than acting as selfless public servants, trustees are sucking up perks from the financially strapped system. Each trustee receives $400 for attending meetings; a $400 monthly stipend for incidental purposes; a $5,000 annual travel budget; a $100 monthly cell phone stipend; a laptop computer; a printer/fax/copy machine; a dedicated DSL phone line installed at home; a dedicated fax line; a $100,000 life insurance policy; medical benefits; dental benefits, and, until last fall, a VISA credit card with a $2,000 monthly limit.
Some trustees abused their credit cards to make personal purchases. Others used them for dining out, room service at hotels and even overnight stays in hotels as close as San Francisco and Rohnert Park. The grand jury found a lack of guidelines for trustee expenses and inadequate record keeping. They even found that trustees were paid a per-diem rate for food in advance of travel and then also charging meals to their hotel bills. In essence, the district paid twice for the same meals.
It's not just administrators. Receipts for senior staff showed fancy dinners with steak and wine, in one case averaging $149 per person. (The credit card privileges were eliminated after this newspaper last year reported abuses by administrators and some trustees.)
None of this surprises us. It's symptomatic of the way trustees and administrators have run the entire district. That's why the accrediting commission placed the district on probation and gave it until October to show progress fixing the problems and until June 2011 to clean up the place.
Losing accreditation is the most serious penalty the district could face, endangering the academic standing of all four Peralta campuses — Laney and Merritt Colleges in Oakland, Berkeley City College and College of Alameda. The loss of accreditation would mean that students might not be able to transfer to four-year schools or receive college degrees or job-training certificates.
The commission found that the district did not have a handle on how it plans to pay for the growing debt for employee retirement benefits. The district also has been plagued with accounting software problems that, as the commission concluded, meant the district had not passed an adopted budget, closed the financial records or completed an independent audit for the 2008-09 fiscal year.
It's time for trustees to perform the jobs to which they were elected. We don't expect them to micromanage. Quite the contrary. We expect them to stop abusing the system themselves and hire a qualified chancellor to run the district. Without professional leadership at the top, the district's health will continue its rapid decline.