By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Because there’s a maddening Catch-22 at play here: The commission says the college can’t be accredited unless it’s governed by a local board, but the state takeover nullified the powers of the local board. And the state says it won’t leave Compton College until it helps it restore its accreditation, which can’t happen until . . . and so on.
So what’s the back story? Officially, it’s complicated.
For people in Compton — the people who vote for local trustees, pay local taxes and use Compton College as a source of education and civic pride — it means being stuck in the middle of competing forces that seem to be speaking to one another, but not really listening. Tara Bonner, the outgoing Compton Community College District student trustee, put it bluntly in an interview a few months back: “This is all a bunch of bullshit. They know as long as they’re present here, we can’t have the school accredited.”
Bonner, widely respected in the community, is generally a mellow lady, but the whole Compton College mess has had this kind of effect on people. Anger. A 49-year-old single mother of five who moonlights as a clerk at the U.S. Postal Service, Bonner moved to Compton from Boston when she was 7 years old. She graduated from Compton High School and started attending Compton College’s nursing program before becoming pregnant with her first child. Back then, she said, Compton College was a lively, diverse place, where people took pride in their campus. Today, even though she and other students say the college is still a good, sound place to get an education, she calls Compton College “a ghost town.”
In the past few months, Bonner and many other Compton residents, young and old, have been attending regular grassroots community meetings at a Baptist church near the campus, where residents strategize on how to respond to nearly constant developments out of Sacramento. They’ve sent more than 10,000 letters to their local representatives, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and even U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.
After forming the Committee to Save Compton Community College District, the residents staged rallies, candlelight vigils and press conferences. Yet, for the most part, criticism of the crisis at Compton College has fallen on dismissive ears in Sacramento and in the mainstream press.
“It breaks my heart,” Bonner, who graduated this month, said during a break from a recent community meeting. “This college was available to me when I came back in my 40s to finish my education. It’s racist and it’s political, because there are other colleges that have problems. It’s personal.”
It’s also about money, you might say. Who gets to run it, who gets to watch it.
In 2002, voters in the Compton Community College District passed a $100 million bond for capital improvements at the college. Today, the state chancellor’s office and the “special trustee” control the bond funds and the bond’s related contracts. The bond sales are scheduled through 2017.
Yet the chancellor has maintained that the takeover was necessary, urgent and not discriminatory, and the media have generally reported it as so. “There is no ‘race’ issue with targeting the Compton district,” Drummond wrote last week in response to questions from the L.A. Weekly. “It is and was the only district in the state where there was credible evidence that illegal activities were taking place, and it was the only district in the state that had run completely out of cash for operations. The state has a clear responsibility to protect the welfare and best interests of the students and employees of Compton. Given these circumstances, state intervention was and continues to be necessary to remedy the district’s long-standing fiscal problems and mismanagement.”
There was no denying that Compton College was in trouble. In 2003, an investigative story in the Los Angeles Times detailed the exploits of corrupt college officials who were using district funds for personal use and enjoying lavish perks. The story resulted in local and federal criminal investigations. (Stemming from those investigations, in December last year, an L.A. judge sentenced former Compton College trustee Ignacio Peña to four years in state prison for stealing more than $1 million from the district for himself and family members.)
Drummond personally delivered news of the takeover to the board of trustees in a visit to the Compton campus on May 21, 2004. Mindful not to offend racial sensibilities at a historically black-serving institution, the chancellor installed a trusted colleague, Arthur Tyler, as Compton’s new “special trustee.” Tyler, who is African American, had previously served as an administrator at Los Angeles City College.
Drummond told local Compton newspapers and the L.A. Times, where I was working at the time as a metro reporter, that he was fully within his rights as the state chancellor to supersede the locally elected trustees at the college and install his own “special trustee.”
In the months that followed the takeover, however, the chancellor muscled through measures to back up the takeover on two separate fronts.
First, Drummond pushed the Board of Governors, a state body similar to the UC Board of Regents, and the Cal State board of trustees, to pass a resolution meant to strengthen his case for taking over the Compton College district. Helping Drummond further, Dymally sponsored a bill passed by the Legislature that strengthened Drummond’s takeover. The bill, A.B. 61, basically made the chancellor’s order to take over Compton College part of state law. When Schwarzenegger signed the bill, however, he attached a statement that called the bill inadequate in defining a recovery process and called for the parties involved to actively seek the restoration of local control at Compton College. It was after-the-fact support, says Barry Green, an attorney who briefly represented the board of trustees in its initial efforts to block the takeover. “They didn’t follow the right procedure, and then they got the Legislature to fix it for them,” Green says.