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Compton's Crash Course 

Connecting the doubts about the failure of a community college

Wednesday, Jun 28 2006
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Compton Community College celebrated what may be its last commencement June 9 on the campus’ grassy athletic field with a sea of balloons and flowers, graduates striking goofy poses, and stirring testimonies told in English and Spanish. When Gerald Burgess, president of the college’s board of trustees, took the podium and asked the new graduates to encourage others to enroll at Compton College next year, a funny thing happened. Snickers and guffaws rose from the bleachers all around me. “It ain’t gonna be Compton” . . . “It’s the last time” . . . “It ain’t gonna be Compton College.”

It’s hard not to get a little depressed by the state of affairs at Compton Community College these days.

After years of scandal and financial troubles, Compton College is about to lose its accreditation. This means the college will no longer qualify for government funds and will have to close, a huge blow to the area the college serves, which includes Compton, and all or parts of Lynwood, North Long Beach, Willowbrook, Carson and Paramount. Foreseeing this, a bill sponsored by local Assemblyman Mervyn Dymally, who represents Compton in Sacramento, is moving through the state Legislature that would allow Compton College to keep operating, even if it loses accreditation, with a $31 million loan from the state. The state Senate approved the bill on Monday, and state chancellor’s spokeswoman Cheryl Fong said it is expected to make it to the governor’s desk by Friday. The catch is that it would run as a satellite “learning center” under a “partnering” community college district. (Summer session at Compton, for example, is already set to be operated by administrators from Santa Monica College.)

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Compton College as it has been known for almost 80 years would cease to exist.

The Dymally bill is the latest chapter in the sad saga of Compton Community College, the only two-year college in California that is under state oversight. In an unprecedented action in May 2004, state officials descended on the college and announced they were taking over to monitor its “fiscal recovery.” Audits were late. The books were in the red. Payroll was in doubt. Worst of all, Compton College officials were being investigated for misusing public funds. To the casual ear, it sounded like typical Compton.

This towny black-brown city of 99,000, where it seems everyone is somehow connected, is the site of almost routine investigations, arrests and often indictments and convictions against public officials for nefarious abuses of public funds — golfing, dental work, trips to the Olympics and so forth. The most high-profile of these tales is the case of former Compton Mayor Omar Bradley, who was sentenced to three years in prison for misappropriating public funds and using city credit cards for personal use. In Compton’s Bradley days, public meetings were known to dissolve into chaos, making understandable the regular appearances of Sheriff’s deputies and personal posses of heavyset men in double-breasted suits.

On top of it all, last year Compton had its highest homicide rate in a decade, prompting headlines that fed the perception that Compton is dangerous and lawless. It’s been easy, then, for observers to write off the troubles at Compton College as just another embarrassment in a city synonymous with civic chaos and corruption.

But since the beginning, members of the Compton College community have been raising questions about the motives behind the state takeover and the personal connections between some of the high-powered players involved in the college’s story, such as the friendship between former Compton College President Ulis Williams and Marshall “Mark” Drummond, chancellor for the state’s 109 community colleges. And the ties between Drummond and Dymally, the seasoned and well-connected assemblyman.

To understand the plight of Compton College, you have to look at the significant power shift that occurred when the state took it over. The five locally elected trustees were stripped of their power. In their place, the state installed a “special trustee” to handle all decisions at the college under the direction of Drummond, the state chancellor.

For more than two years, the state has been in control, at considerable expense to the college. Student enrollment has fallen, fueled by the perception that Compton College is in disarray. Overall, the state estimates that Compton’s enrollment has dropped about 40 percent, says Fong. In fall 2005, the last semester with available figures, Compton College enrolled 5,050 students.

A few months after the state takeover, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges started sniffing around Compton College, and the commission didn’t like what it saw. Compton College had been fully accredited as recently as 1999, but the presence of a state overseer meant the college was suddenly a prime target for review. The commission quickly put Compton College on “show cause,” a status that basically means “show us why we shouldn’t take away your accreditation.” Compton College, led by the state, pressed its case but lost. In June 2005, the commission terminated Compton College’s accreditation. The college has been appealing ever since.

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