Fresnans express dismay over State Center chancellor's departure (video)

The Fresno BeeMarch 25, 2014 

A number of black community leaders and students gathered Tuesday to voice concerns over the impending retirement of Deborah Blue, chancellor of the State Center Community College District.

A heated news conference attended by about 60 people was held in front of the district office at Fresno City College. Speakers expressed concerns that due process may not have been followed regarding Blue's "ouster" -- how many of those at the rally perceived her early retirement.

Blue announced her retirement early this month, the same day the district's seven-member board of trustees voted to shorten her contract, which previously was extended to 2017.

Board members haven't publicly shared why her contract was reduced. Blue's employment has been under review since January during closed-door meetings.

Speculation on why she was under review has left some lingering concerns. Some at the rally said Blue's race -- African American -- may have played a role in why she was under review.

Pat Patterson, president of the State Center's Board of Trustees, said this of Blue's review: "Race was never an issue at all, period."

Blue's new contract says she will serve as chancellor until June 30. After that, she'll work in a more limited role as chancellor emeritus until the summer of 2015.

Patterson said the board has been as transparent as possible while complying with privacy laws afforded to employees.

But at Tuesday's news conference, Tate Hill, president of the Fresno Metro Black Chamber of Commerce, questioned how transparent the board has tried to be.

At one recent meeting, he arrived 15 minutes early to find the doors to the State Center meeting area locked, Hill said. And later, others found the doors locked again when the public meeting reconvened following a closed-door session, he added.

Patterson said board members did not have a part in locking any doors, and that doors should be open during public meetings. If the doors were locked, Patterson said, they were likely locked by mistake, since it was a special meeting held at a different time than normal.

Speakers also voiced confusion over the board's March 17 decision to appoint Bill Stewart to the new position of deputy chancellor.

"Is Dr. Blue considered your chancellor, or is Dr. Stewart?" asked Julia Dudley, president of the African American Historical and Cultural Museum of the San Joaquin Valley.

Patterson said he couldn't comment on Blue's new role. She is slated to continue collecting her $225,000 annual salary plus benefits.

But Patterson did say deputy chancellor Stewart "is in effect running the day-to-day operations."

Stewart's salary has not yet been decided. He will officially take over Blue's duties this summer as the board conducts a national search for her replacement.

Pamela Young-King, president of the Fresno branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, is calling for a community task force to provide recommendations to the board and to act as its watchdog.

Mel Sanders, political action chairman for the Fresno branch of NAACP, said he's concerned about due process violations since Blue's contract was negotiated behind closed doors.

"There's a thing called the Brown Act," Sanders said, "for public agencies, that is a tool that is used to make sure that they have transparency."

The Brown Act is a California law that requires most public decision making to be done in the open. It does, however, allow governing bodies to handle personnel matters behind closed doors.

Patterson said: "We have done everything according to legal counsel. We have purposely made every attempt to be certain we are within the limits of our contract and laws, and I'm certain we have done that very well."

Rev. Floyd Harris Jr. with New Light for New Life Church of God in southwest Fresno used the Blue issue to highlight historic civil rights struggles for black people.

"We're concerned about hiring practices out here," Harris said. "How many black professionals do we have in administration out here? How many black faculty do we have here?"

Fresno City College student Rodney Holly, president of student group Strengthening Young Minds by Academic Achievement, said many students are confused about what's happened to Blue, since the administration has "kept it so hidden from us."

"This is not just about African Americans, it's about SCC, period," Holly said. "This is about what she (Blue) brings to this college. We are here to let the staff know and faculty know that we are supporting her 100%."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6386, or @CarmenGeorge on Twitter.

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