Point Of View
A Sentinel Reader Opinion Piece
The primary job of the board of trustees of the San Bernardino Community College District is to oversee district spending and provide accountability. There is scant evidence the trustees are doing their job. In 2011, the trustees spent about $45,000,000 on about 199 different items. Each of the votes was unanimous. Not a single trustee voted “No”. Were the costs on any of the $45,000,000 inflated? Was there not a single dollar of waste in any of the 199 spending projects? If not, then the San Bernardino Community College District must be the most well run government agency in California, and perhaps the entire the United States. Sadly, that doesn’t appear to be the case. The district has had to cut classes due to lack of funds and tuition is going up by 33%. The projects approved by the trustees included $300,000 for a “wellness pond.” I’ve attended five colleges and have over 200 semester credits, never once using a “wellness pond.”
On December 8, 2011, I attended the trustee’s meeting and observed the lack of consideration they give before spending taxpayer dollars. In about 15 minutes, they hurriedly voted to spend over $9,000,000 without any comments, questions to staff or even discussion among themselves. Every vote was unanimous, including one to make it easier to raise taxes. The taxpayers, students and faculty deserve more than a “rubberstamp” on every spending project. Instead of rushing through every spending project, the trustees should make sure each dollar is spent wisely. Pawning off the responsibility on a citizen’s committee doesn’t remove the trustee’s fiduciary duty to the taxpayers. At the January 19th meeting, I addressed the board on these issues.
Our community college district is vital to the San Bernardino Valley. Many high school graduates need an associate’s degree before they can attend a four year college due to finances and family responsibilities. Other high school graduates aren’t seeking a four year degree, but need vocational classes offered at Valley and Crafton to learn the skills needed for good paying jobs. About 20,000 students yearly attend our community colleges. Recently reforms have been recommended cutting the fat and instead focusing on the primary goals; assisting students to a four year degree and teaching vocational/ occupational skills. It is questionable that the trustees are up to the job. For example, instead of courses that prepare students for a four year degree or a good job, they recently approved classes like “walking” for four semesters (course #PE/I 127×4). After graduating from “walking,” a student can take two semesters of “tap dancing” (course # DANCE 107×2). While billions are being cut from community college budgets, the trustees are walking away from their fiduciary responsibilities and tap dancing around the needs of students, faculty and taxpayers.
Since 2003, taxpayers have authorized $690,000,000 dollars in spending for new construction projects. So far about $450,000,000 has been spent. Based upon the trustees’ rubberstamping every spending project that comes before them, it’s questionable if the taxpayers’ money is being well spent. Every property owner in the district is assessed $37.30 for every $100,000 in value of the property. A typical homeowner pays about $100 or more each year. In the last ten years, many homeowners have paid over $1,000 for these construction projects. Are we getting our money’s worth? We can’t be sure when the trustees rubberstamp each spending item without even asking a single question.
There’s other evidence of a lack of accountability. Recently, four high ranking administrators have been placed on paid leave and relieved of their duties. The trustees won’t say why. Community colleges in San Diego and Los Angeles have been rocked by allegations of fraud and mismanagement of construction projects. We don’t know what these four administrators did, but based upon the lack of oversight and accountability shown by the trustees in rubberstamping $45,000,000 of spending in the last year, there’s no reason to be confident that there hasn’t been an abuse of power. The president of Valley College has left for a new job out of state. We don’t know if there’s been unethical conduct, but we do know that the combination of lack of accountability and oversight, combined with large amounts of money breeds corruption; especially in San Bernardino County.
How does such a lack of accountability occur? The trustees’ bureaucratic structure could be one reason. There are seven trustees, who are all elected at large. The district serves hundreds of thousands of residents. Instead of seven at large positions, trustees should be elected from districts with an equal number of residents. Dividing the district into seven districts would increase the accountability. Each trustee would get to know, and become known to, the voters of a much smaller district. This common sense initiative would increase transparency and empower the citizens. Another reform is to increase the number of meetings. Currently, there is only one business meeting each month. Meeting for a few hours once a month is woefully inadequate to manage $690,000,000. Another reform would be timely posting of agendas and minutes. The minutes for the December meeting weren’t posted online for 30 days after the meeting. The agenda for the January meeting wasn’t posted on line until one week before the meeting. Each agenda is hundreds of pages. Less than two weeks to scrutinize the agenda is totally inadequate. Without adequate time to examine the agenda, meaningful debate is impossible. Increasing the number of meetings would decrease the volume of the agenda. Copies of the agenda need to be available at the meetings for citizens to study.
I urge all citizens who share these concerns about the trustees spending habits to attend the next meeting and be ready to speak on agenda items.