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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.

Now that Compton College’s accreditation is permanently threatened, the state-appointed “special trustee” has gone from overseeing the college’s finances to fighting to save the college’s very existence. In theory, at least.

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.

The argument convinced L.A. Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs, who granted the board of trustees a temporary restraining order. In her ruling, she said some of the provisions of the state takeover were questionable. It was a short-lived victory for the trustees. Eventually, the order was made moot when the Legislature intervened on Drummond’s behalf with A.B. 61 in July 2004.

Yet problems remained with the state’s reasoning for the takeover. The state said the takeover was partly a response to allegations of corruption, raised by the Times, against board members, including Peña, Carl Robinson and college President Williams, a 1964 Olympic gold medalist. But by the time the state moved in, three new trustees had been placed in office by voters: Burgess, Lorraine Cervantes and Willie O. Jones. (Jones, elected in 2002, was implicated in the Times story for overnight use of a Compton College district car with “a multidisc CD player and leather seats.”)

The state also said Compton College was in financial distress, but an audit conducted shortly after the state stepped in heralded “discovery” of $600,000 in overlooked funds. The state also argued that the Compton College administration essentially needed a cleaning out, a fresh start. But key administrators who might have been responsible for some of the financial problems were — at least initially — not affected by the takeover.

Finally, the state said Compton College was unique, its financial problems especially dire. It said Compton was the only college with a negative ending balance in 2002-03. But for that fiscal year, two other districts were listed as critical “Priority 1” on the chancellor’s office watch list of financially troubled colleges: Palo Verde and Santa Monica. One community college district, Ventura, was “Priority 2,” a less serious level. And nine districts were “Priority 3,” including the districts of Glendale, Los Angeles, Peralta, San Francisco and West Hills.

In interviews, members of the board of trustees said that’s only half the story. The state takeover happened after Drummond sought to protect his friend Ulis Williams, according to current and former trustees, and various Compton community residents, elected officials, activists and others familiar with Compton College who were interviewed for this story.

In January 2004, two months after voters in the district sent two new members to the college board, Drummond called the Compton College trustees to a dinner in Sacramento. At this dinner, according to three board members who attended, Drummond warned the board against removing college President Williams.

It was widely known that a new alliance of board members, conscious of the cloud of scandal that had enveloped the district since the L.A. Times story, wanted to fire the administrators whom they saw as problematic. Williams was a target.

But Drummond warned the board members that Williams was a friend, and that he would “move to Compton if you try to do something,” said trustee Cervantes, elected in 2003.

“He made it clear to us that Ulis Williams was his friend and that he supported him as president and superintendent,” Cervantes said.

Robinson, himself the subject of scrutiny in the Times investigation, described the evening with Drummond in a 2004 interview: “We ate, had fun, told jokes and then, at the end of the dinner, Drummond stood up, he turned to Cervantes, he said, ‘I know you have some problems down there. But I support Ulis, he’s my friend,’ and he said, ‘If you mess with Ulis, I will move to Compton.’ ”

Despite the threat, some members of the board went ahead with the idea of “messing with Ulis.” Four months later, Drummond arrived to announce the state takeover. This element of the dynamic that led to the takeover was widely overlooked.

Williams was eventually ousted, in February 2005, for reasons that remain unclear. Efforts to reach him were unsuccessful. Drummond said Williams retired and that “His whereabouts at this time are unknown to me, but I wish him well in his retirement.”

In his responses to questions, Drummond painted the dinner this way, printed here as written: “I attended only a portion of the dinner meeting . . . At that time I had only a small piece of the total picture — and strongly advise[d] them to obtain the best advice (legal, financial) they could get then to support President Williams in an effort to clean the place up before it was too late. In retrospect, it was already too late.”

Dymally described the incident this way: “Yes, [Drummond] was [protecting Williams], but he finally fired him. Ulis was his friend, there’s nothing hidden about it, nothing illegal about fighting for a friend.”

And responding to the argument that the trustees are being punished for the behavior of previous trustees, Dymally said, “It doesn’t matter. This board is equally responsible.”

Drummond and Dymally have a rich history of cooperation.

Dymally served as a consultant for the huge, nine-campus Los Angeles Community College District in 2000, while Drummond was chancellor of that district. Dymally earned a total of $62,500 advising the L.A. schools on “atriculation agreements between the district and historically black colleges and universities,” according to the L.A. district public information office. This was before Drummond was appointed chancellor for the whole state, in January 2004.

Dymally has also had a similar contract with the Compton Community College District, although state and Compton College officials said last week they could not produce the records on the contract. In addition, Drummond’s wife at the time, Marcy, made small contributions to Dymally campaigns in 2001 and 2003, according to state records.

“It’s a good relationship,” Dymally said. “I’m getting [Compton College $31] million dollars. Without me, they’re fucked. There’s a lot of denial here. Not a single person in Compton has ever criticized the behavior of the trustees, not one.”

After the initial flurry of activity over the takeover, an otherwise weird situation became the status quo at the college.

Public meetings continued with the board of trustees running the proceedings, but with the “special trustee” retaining veto power. The trustees were in the room basically for show. The state asked a Fiscal Crises Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) to come and start helping the college on its road to “fiscal recovery.” Administrators were replaced, while improvement projects on the campus under the $100 million bond measure continued, despite declining enrollment. The campus, a collection of low-slung postwar-style academic buildings and wide lawns, is awash with construction of gleaming new buildings, such as a child-development center.

A year after the takeover, the season of attrition began. Since Williams’ departure, there have been two new college presidents, hand picked by the chancellor. The current president, Jamillah Moore, is also head of the chancellor’s governmental-affairs division. In other words, Moore is Drummond’s chief lobbyist in the Legislature.

Tyler, the first “special trustee,” left the post last June and took a job as president of Sacramento City College. He was replaced by Charles Ratliff, a respected higher-education policy expert in Sacramento who had recently retired before being contacted by the chancellor’s office.

In March, Ratliff was replaced by Thomas Henry, a former CEO of FCMAT, the financial-recovery group the state initially hired to look at Compton. State officials said Ratliff had fulfilled his duties, but his loss puzzled and angered people in Compton because he had been seen as a true ally who had built rapport with stakeholders on campus.

Reached by telephone, Ratliff, carefully measuring his words, said he was still unclear as to why Drummond recalled him to Sacramento. “That’s part of the best question. I know his formal statement was he wanted me to come to Sacramento to work on legislation on behalf of the Compton Community College District.”

Has he been doing that?

“No . . . I absolutely would have stayed longer. I was both surprised and disappointed to leave at a time that I would refer to as premature.”

Compton City Council officials have gradually entered the fray, appearing at public meetings and attending rallies.

“It’s an unfortunate situation that the district would lose its accreditation and its local control that it’s had for several decades, and the motives behind how it happened I don’t necessarily support,” said Compton City Councilman Isadore Hall III. “But I thank God the people of the community still have a place where they can receive a reasonable level of education and instruction.”

Bruce Boyden, a former student at Compton College and an active member of the citizens’ committee, said there is a nasty undercurrent to the political drama of Compton College, a sentiment echoed by others in private discussions. Compton, a city where residents uphold a proud, if sometimes tainted, tradition of civic engagement, suffers from paternalistic attitudes on the part of outsiders, he said.

Boyden referred to it as “the posture of ‘We can’t make good decisions, we know we can get them fighting amongst themselves.’ In other words, we’re all crooks, we’re all incapable of making sound decisions — and, of course, it’s asinine.”

Dymally’s savior bill, A.B. 318, is still moving forward through the state Legislature. One local representative whose district overlaps with the Compton Community College district, Assemblyman Hector de la Torre, says he is unsure how he will vote on it. Early on, there was talk that the “partnering district” referred to in the bill that might take over Compton College would be Peralta Community College District — almost 400 miles away.

“I just thought that was ridiculous on its face,” de la Torre says. “It’s up in Oakland.”

The assemblyman says he had no idea that one of the provisions of the accreditation commission would be that the college be under local control, the double-jeopardy scenario. “That’s something that I will be looking at. The alternative here is that they lose accreditation, and there isn’t a Plan B in place, and the school shuts down.”

There’s an undeniable financial imperative too, de la Torre says. If Compton College closes, the $100 million bond measure will still have to be paid.

“That’s what the [special] trustee is for, to manage the bond money,” he says. “If the school would close, that would be a complete shame, because the bond money would still be owed, because Wall Street, they’re going to want their money back. It’s a situation which we’re trying to make the best of.”

The elected trustees and some community members say that even if A.B. 318 becomes law in Sacramento, even if Compton Community College is dismantled, they’ll fight it in court.

Trustee Burgess, standing in a cap and gown outside the campus student lounge, said, “It’s an old-fashioned power grab. They have a hidden agenda, and we mean to expose that agenda by any means necessary.”

For Bonner, who saw Compton College back in the good old days and has sat through a year of technically pointless board meetings as the student trustee, commencement was a day to rejoice, not worry about what would happen to her beloved school.

“I’m going to the next level,” she smiled, in between posing for pictures and taking congratulatory hugs.

She might have the right idea. One of the items in the new Dymally bill says the state takeover of Compton Community College will become indefinite.

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