Lessons in higher education

Ventura County Community College District, board at odds over reasons for probation

By Shane Cohn 02/23/2012

For the past year, the Ventura Community College District and its institutions have been working to meet the state’s accrediting commission’s recommendations for improvement in order to reaffirm accreditation status. The Western Association of Schools and Colleges reaccredits such institutions every 10 years.

“The faculty, staff and administration worked together really effectively to address the commission’s concerns,” said Ventura College President Robin Calote. “I’m pleased and proud of the ability of our campus to make significant changes in that amount of time.”

Oxnard College has also been addressing the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) recommendations to ensure reaccreditation while facing controversial cuts in programs deemed crucial to the community.

But when the commission suddenly moved Ventura and Oxnard College’s accreditation status from “warning” to “probation” earlier this year, and also placed on probation Moorpark College, which was not on warning, it was widely reported that the actions of district board member Art Hernandez was to blame, which many have said is an unjustified accusation.

“That is just not the way it is,” said Ismael de la Rocha, a Ventura College history professor for nearly four decades. “I don’t think he did anything but stand up for students. That is what he is supposed to do as a trustee. That’s his job; to serve the student body and taxpayers. I believe he is becoming a scapegoat.”

Last year, the accrediting commission recommended, but not mandated, that the district’s board members attend a conference in November designed to improve management practices. The board, including Hernandez was registered to attend the event in San Jose. But as the conference date neared, the Oxnard College student government arranged a forum to address the budget cuts that would axe the television production, auto shop and accounting programs the student body deemed vital for its community. Representatives of Assemblymember Das Williams and Supervisor John Zaragosa attended the forum, as well as Oxnard Councilwoman Carmen Ramirez.

Hernandez, known as the outspoken critic during his 12 years on the board, felt it was imperative for a member of the district be there, advocating for Oxnard College students. Because he said that he felt he should represent the district that elected him, he decided to skip the San Jose conference and attend the forum.

“We all said we were going to this one (conference),” said Stephen Blum, chairman of the board, mentioning that the board hadn’t been regularly attending special development conferences because of the cost to taxpayers. “But nobody on the board thought if we didn’t go, we’d be on probation.”

A few weeks later Chancellor James Meznek announced his early retirement, and in a November letter to the board that was leaked to the press, he cited his “serious concerns regarding a single Trustee’s actions,” which he feared would affect the district’s reaccreditation.

Then, in January, the ACCJC placed the district’s colleges on probation. In the commission’s report, it specifically addressed its concern about a particular board member’s behavior, similar to Meznek’s leaked letter. (It is understood that Hernandez is the trustee in question.) The report, however, also listed seven recommendations for improving governance and communication within the district and the board — three of which specifically addressed improving relations on the board.

Trustees have indicated to the press that the missed conference is likely the reason the commission decided to place the colleges on probation. Whether or not that is true, what baffles some is how the commission has overlooked the issue of Meznek’s leaked letter, considering the tension that has existed over the years between Meznek and Hernandez.

“I haven’t seen too much district confidential stuff leaked in the 27 years I’ve been in the district,” said Lynne Fauth, professor of English at Oxnard College. “Was it leaked on purpose? It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that a trustee is mentioned, ‘wink-wink,’ in the letter and here comes the slapping by the accreditation agency.”

“If I were a board member,” Fauth continued, “I would have asked for his (Meznek’s) termination. He is hired by the board to take care of the district.”

One of the commission’s recommendations is that board members must represent the entire district, not just a particular college. Concerns that Hernandez only looks after Oxnard College have been a point of contention. But many in the Oxnard community think it’s time to re-examine what a trustee’s role should be.

“The ACCJC is usurping local advocacy,” said Jim Gilmer, a member of the Black and Brown Alliance of Oxnard, adding that the proposed program cuts at Oxnard College would have put the ethnic community at a disadvantage. “We want our trustees to be accountable. We asked him to be there (at the November forum). Because the crisis is posed to the racial and ethnic communities, it was a critical time for board representatives to be there, especially with 200 people in the auditorium.”

The board met on Wednesday, Nov. 22, to consider the commission’s recommendations and redefine what the role of trustees should be. The board must submit a special report addressing the ACCJC’s eligibility concerns by March 15, with a follow-up regarding all district recommendations by Oct. 15. 

(All colleges in the district remain accredited while on probation.)

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