Unusually contentious races for the local community college board of trustees have revealed a power struggle underway at the highest levels of the district.
Three members of the State Center Community College Board of Trustees, which governs 45,000 students and employs 4,000 from four counties, have challengers this year. Two were recruited by the former chancellor to dislodge a pair of board members who the challengers contend don’t understand their roles and responsibilities.
The mudslinging battle lines are drawn like this:
On one side is two-time former Chancellor Bill Stewart (1985-99 and 2014-15) and his favored candidates, former Clovis Community College President Deborah Ikeda and lawyer Catherine Amador.
They believe certain board members are impeding the district’s progress by micromanaging and not following district rules. They point to a report from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges that scolded the board minority for those very things.
This report, conducted earlier this year, was a follow-up to the commission’s 2015 report granting Clovis Community College its accreditation.
On the other side is an unlikely board minority: Trustees Eric Payne, Miguel Arias and Patrick Patterson. Ikeda is challenging Patterson, the longest serving board member at 33 years, while Amador will face off against Payne, the youngest member of the board. Arias’ seat is not up until 2018.
They say that Stewart actively recruited Amador and Ikeda to run against the incumbents.
Patterson, Payne and Arias believe that staff has been spending and moving money around with little oversight for decades, and they are looking to tighten the reins. They believe the board policies they are accused of breaking are relics from a time where at-large trustees passed every item placed in front of them without scrutiny.
The current staff and other four board members are caught somewhere in the middle.
A handful of other candidates seeking board seats have tossed themselves into this mix as well, some relying on misinformation as a reason for running.
In all, the election breaks down like this:
▪ Patterson (Area 6) is running against Ikeda and attorney David Rowell.
▪ Payne (Area 2) is facing four challengers: Amador, businesswoman Paulina Miranda, project coordinator Cherella Nicholson and educator Pao Yang.
▪ Trustee John Leal (Area 3) is also up for re-election. Ted Miller, the Caruthers engineer who failed in a bid for state Assembly in June, is challenging.
▪ Trustee Richard Caglia (Area 7) is running unopposed.
The winners of these races will have to confront a series of problems in the district.
Teaching vacancies remain unfilled. Serious questions surround the district’s spending and budgeting practices. Tens of thousands of public dollars were spent investigating claims leveled by Stewart against Payne, only to find out Stewart had exaggerated Payne’s apparent transgressions.
Amador said that Stewart and a few others approached her and Ikeda about running. Ikeda said Stewart did not ask her to run – that she came up with the idea on her own and Stewart has only served as an adviser during the campaign. Stewart said that he did not ask either to run, nor has he advised either candidate.
Ikeda worked under Stewart for years, while Amador said Stewart and her parents are close friends.
The latest campaign spending reports show that Ikeda has raised nearly $15,000 and spent nearly $12,000. Amador has raised just over $9,000 and spent more than $18,000. Many of their campaign donors are the same – most notably Stewart, who gave them each $1,000.
Patterson believes Ikeda got support from another source, too.
Patterson accused one Clovis Community College counselor of illegally soliciting campaign contributions for Ikeda.
The district said it learned of “a couple of instances in which employees used district email or time to urge support for a particular candidate” in August. Their college president spoke to the employees directly and reported they were unaware these activities weren’t allowed and expressed regret. The district then sent out a warning against these activities to all staff on Aug. 26.
Ikeda received $400 in donations from State Center staff, according to campaign reports.
For his part, Patterson said he does not accept contributions and plans no spending on his campaign.
Ikeda’s and Amador’s platforms are similar. They promise to bring experience and expertise to a board they believe is sorely lacking in both.
Ikeda worked up from community college teacher to president in a career spanning more than four decades. Amador used to be a teacher with Fresno Unified, has served on smaller governing boards and is a lawyer specializing in real estate and family law.
Both are also quite critical of the board – especially Payne, Arias and Patterson. Ikeda and Amador accuse the trio of holding up district business by sending emails to lower staff members asking for specific information, rather than going through the chancellor, which is the traditional practice.
The challengers believe the trustees should come together as a board during budgetary hearings, create a list of questions or concerns for staff spending and give that list to the chancellor.
The board minority rejects this approach. They said the critical accreditation report was flawed, and any conclusions drawn from it are false.
Arias accused the committee of not being present at State Center meetings, then rendering judgment. He said the accrediting commission provided no evidence of the alleged micromanaging.
The federal government warned the commission in March about violating several education codes, among them not providing a detailed written report of exactly why a school is in violation of commission standards. A commission representative could not be reached for comment.
In February 2015, the trustees voted to reprimand, but not censure, Payne. The board originally considered stripping Payne of his ability to appear in public on behalf of the district for a full year.
The case against Payne appeared rather damning. He was accused of plagiarizing a Fresno Bee op-ed piece, parking in a handicapped spot at Fresno City College and of using his position to intimidate staff on several occasions.
Amador used these allegations repeatedly when talking about her opponent. She said that Payne was probably a good person but called his boardmanship into question. She believes that her experience as an educator, lawyer and board member elsewhere would allow for a much smoother and more collaborative trustee environment.
Payne opponent Cherella Nicholson said much the same. She is an advocate who works with the city of Fresno to bring services to impoverished communities, and she said that Payne isn’t doing much to help those in need within his district.
The Bee received a copy of a confidential district document that sheds light on why Payne was not censured. An independent investigation said that Stewart had trumped up two of the major personnel claims against Payne, and it claimed that the district’s own investigation had been flawed due to Stewart’s interference.
Arias said this was why the board changed course just before the vote. Payne still was reprimanded, as the plagiarism and parking claims were true, but not given the harsher penalty.
The investigation was conducted by Nicole Miller & Associates Inc., a private investigator hired by Southern California attorney Jack Lipton. Lipton was paid by the board throughout 2014 and 2015 for a variety of investigations of staff, departments and Payne.
Dr. Stewart lacked impartiality in reference to Mr. Payne, therefore rendering him unsuitable to oversee an investigation into the complaints in May and September of 2014.
Investigative report from Nicole Miller & Associates, Inc.
An independent financial audit conducted by Crowe Horwath LLP noted that Lipton was paid more than $113,000 in taxpayer money by the board. Just over $50,000 of that was used to investigate Payne. Nearly $50,000 was used to investigate former Chancellor Deborah Blue, who left the district in June 2014.
Patterson, who was board president in 2014, racked up nearly $28,000 alone in legal charges from emails and phone calls. The audit does not break down the spending.
Stewart rejected the Miller investigation outright, saying he only directed his staff to investigate Payne. He had no role in the final report writing. He recommended contacting district counsel Greg Taylor to corroborate his version, but the district would not allow The Bee to speak to him, saying he “has an obligation of confidentiality.”
Payne believes that Stewart targeted him because he directed staff to work on ways to bring a new college center to southwest Fresno. He also pored through the budget closely to find ways to redirect money to this new center. He said that these two factors led to the micromanaging claims.
Payne also was the only trustee to vote against reappointing Stewart as chancellor after Blue’s departure.
Plans to build a new southwest Fresno center have been added to the district’s facilities master plan. Payne said the district will spend the next nine months asking people and employers what types of programs they would like the new center to offer.
Payne, Patterson and Arias have called the general spending practices of the individual campuses into question.
The state allows community colleges to spend up to $86,000 on capital projects without the approval of the local board. State Center policy mirrors this standard.
But the board minority believes this threshold may be too high. For example, the larger Fresno Unified School District sets its limit at $15,000. The city of Fresno’s limit is $50,000. Both have budgets around $1 billion, while State Center’s is around $300 million.
Ikeda scoffed at tightening the limit. She added that individual trustees should not bog down both the staff and the board by questioning $5,000 or $10,000 charges when the district’s budget is in the hundreds of millions.
Arias, who works as a spokesman for Fresno Unified, also noted the recent construction of a shade structure at Clovis Community College as an example of misusing district funds. The board still is not certain where the money for that project came from.
Arias said the state requires that at least 50 percent of its general fund expenditures go toward paying staff. If it falls below that threshold, it could be fined – daily – until the balance is restored.
Patterson shared a similar story about a new sign built at the Clovis college’s Herndon Avenue location. He said that Ikeda used $200,000 in money earmarked for teacher’s salaries to pay for the sign and shade structure. He refers to this transfer as a “slush fund.”
Ikeda said that Patterson’s claims are “a lie.”
“If that were true, I’d be in jail,” she said.
Ikeda said that all of the money allocated for hiring teachers was used to add faculty. Some of the budget allocated for hiring classified staff – office assistants, janitorial positions, etc. – was transferred to pay for the sign because the college was unable to fill those positions due to a workforce shortage. She added that the budget allows presidents to transfer unpaid funds in such a way.
She also said that both projects were, in fact, approved by the board.
Both the sign and shade projects were approved by the board. The shade structure was in the district’s budget, unanimously approved by the board on Sept. 6. The sign was on the consent calendar of the May 3 board meeting and approved with a 6-0 vote, with Arias absent.
Patterson doesn’t dispute the approval, but he believes that state law requires that any projects paid for with funds transferred from one area of the budget to another must be adopted by a board resolution – not as part of the consent calendar, which typically includes minor action items lumped together for one vote.
He also disputes the transfer process. On the board minutes, the sign project authorizes the transfer of “funds from the Clovis Community College general fund to the district capital projects fund for construction and related project costs.”
But the general fund has many accounts inside of it, Patterson said, so the agenda item does not show exactly where the money came from. He believes the board needs to know exactly where the money is coming from, given new state standards that require districts to report their spending practices in more detail.
The transfer from the staff fund was for $200.000, but the project ended up costing just over $60,000, Patterson said. The other $140,000 was transferred somewhere else, and Patterson believes the board must get a handle on how all of this money is flowing from place to place.
Ikeda said she “has never done anything illegal with her budget” and added that Patterson only started making these claims once he found out she was running against him. Patterson countered by saying he had always thought she had been doing a good job as president, but he recently had new doubts about her.
Leal, who said he often serves as a conduit between disagreeing board members, has also taken an interest in fine-tuning spending and budgeting practices. He believes it is important to approach the budgeting process with one major goal in mind: increasing student success. Leal’s opponent, Miller, believes district finances should be overhauled in order to cut costs to students.
It is for these reasons and others, they said, that the board has made more demands on staff for receipts and notification when funds are moved around within the budget. Arias said that it was impossible to know if any conflicts of interest are present without knowing who is doing what work within the district.
Current Chancellor Paul Parnell said he has asked the California Community College Chancellor’s Office to investigate and rule on the district’s budgeting and budget transfer progress.
Parnell, who took over in April, finds himself in a difficult spot. The board is divided on his performance, with Patterson calling him a puppet of Stewart’s and Payne calling him “a breath of fresh air.”
Two of his three vice chancellor positions are currently being filled on an interim basis. Fresno City and Clovis Community colleges have new presidents. And the district must now begin work on hundreds of millions of dollars worth of construction projects approved via the bond measure.
Public scrutiny may also increase, as Payne said the district is moving forward with plans to relocate and broadcast its board meetings. According to Payne, the district will begin holding board meetings at the Herndon Avenue location of Clovis Community College. They will also stream the meetings live online.
State Center races
Candidates running for seats on the State Center Community College District board in the Nov. 8 election:
District 2: Eric Payne, incumbent; Catherine Amador, lawyer; Pao Yang, school administrator; Paulina Miranda, businesswoman; Cherella Nicholson, advocacy project coordinator
District 3: John Leal, incumbent; Ted Miller, engineer
District 6: Patrick Patterson, incumbent; Deborah Ikeda, retired college president; David Rowell, attorney
District 7: Incumbent Richard Caglia is unopposed