Ventura County Community College District has had its fair share of problems over the past several years, though the story isn’t unusual among schools throughout California, given the state’s ongoing budget crisis. In three years, the district has cut more than $30 million from its budget, resulting in a reduction of classes being offered, layoffs of classified staff, administration and professors, and higher tuition.
In the midst of the budget drama, however, the situation became direr. In February, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges placed the district on probation — a step toward losing accreditation. Shortly after, Trustee Art Hernandez became embroiled in controversy for what was perceived as his unruly behavior on the board in defense of, mainly, Oxnard College, which had been facing severe cuts to popular programs. Then Chancellor James Meznek, who had served the district for eight years, decided to retire a year early, which began the search for a new chancellor. Dr. Jamillah Moore, former president of L.A. City College, took over the position in August.
With so much tumult, one might think that it would be less stressful to be a bystander than to be actively involved in so many tough decisions. With the Nov. 6 election around the corner, however, board trustee incumbents Dr. Larry Miller, representing Area 3 (including Camarillo, Port Hueneme, southeast Oxnard, Santa Paula, Fillmore, Piru and Eastern Portion of Naval Base Ventura County Port Hueneme), and Bernardo Perez, representing Area 4 (including Simi Valley, Moorpark, and Tierra Rejada Valley), are not only running again, but they are going head to head with two determined challengers, Larry Kennedy, a teacher for the district, and Ash Givargis, an IT supervisor at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility in Camarillo.
Miller, who is running against Kennedy, is the current chair of the board and has served as a trustee since 2004. He came to Ventura County in 1971 and worked as a biology professor at Moorpark College for 32 years. When he retired in 2003, it didn’t take him long to go back to the district — this time as a trustee.
“When I came to work at Moorpark, I was so enamored of the entire school, being a community college graduate myself, I said, ‘I am going to leave this place better than I found it,’ ” Miller said.
Miller said he has an edge over his opponent due to his experience, his time on the board and his work for the district — a total of around four decades.
“I have a wealth of experience,” Miller said. “No one has more history in the district. I know where all the skeletons are, unsung heroes, the workers, the slackers . . .. I understand how the colleges work, how the classes are scheduled.”
He said he also understands how things have changed since he began working for the district.
“I have a grasp of what we are — we are not a community college, we are a junior college. We serve two groups, vocation and transfer students.”
But he said he felt the best changes come out of adversity.
Kennedy said he thinks the college needs to jump into the 21st century and take advantage of online courses.
Larry Kennedy, candidate
“Schools haven’t offered flexibility of using online courses and technology,” Kennedy said. “Every student I had is working,” and more online courses would help them juggle school and their jobs.
He wants to build public-private partnerships with larger companies in the area, where supervised students could use facilities while saving the district money instead of simply cutting programs the district can’t afford. He mentioned forming partnerships with Gibbs Truck Centers in Oxnard, Amgen of Thousand Oaks (the world’s largest biotech firm) and even joining forces with Naval Base Ventura County.
“I have connections outside the campus walls,” Kennedy said. “We need fresh partnerships. I see it as collecting stakeholders together where both sides benefit.”
Perez, who worked 30 years for the city of Los Angeles in the department of water and power, retired in 1998. He retired at a relatively young age, 49, though he had already been immersed in public service, on the Moorpark City Council. He then went to work for the Cabrillo Economic Corporation for 13 years. After Trustee Bob Huber was elected mayor of Simi Valley, Perez was appointed to his seat in December 2010.
Bernardo Perez, incumbent
Perez’s vision for the future of the district involves a combination of community outreach and cost-cutting measures.
“Part of my interest is bringing the district meetings to the community,” Perez said. “The public isn’t involved. People need to be more aware. I am pushing that we have our meetings throughout the district, and ultimately be more accountable to community, which also leads to, or ensures, a more transparent, open, fair and inclusive process.”
Not only does he want to move the meetings into perhaps a more accessible arena, he said getting the district out of its own building and moving it to a college campus would save the district hundreds of thousands a year.
He is also concerned with the dissolving of auxiliary courses.
“One of the immediate focuses on core services, some of the auxiliary services are suffering,” he said. “Everything is cyclical. Things aren’t going to be this dire forever. As resources come back to the district, how are we going to dedicate services? All stakeholders need to help form that future.”
Givargis, Perez’s opponent, has worked for the state for 15 years as a public servant, at the state’s capitol, in social services, for a food assistance program, and his most recent job is with the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility as an IT supervisor. Though he hasn’t personally been involved with the district, his wife transferred from Moorpark College and he has friends who work in the district.
Ash Givargis, candidate
He agrees with Kennedy on the need for more and easier access to online courses. He has seen how youth develop and grow at the juvenile detention center, thanks to such course offerings.
“We need to use distance learning at the colleges,” he said. “Students hop on Internet, get lectures, get all kinds of studies — many, many more students. Things like that — so many things — are lacking at the community college.”
Givargis is also concerned about how the board communicates, or the lack thereof.
“I don’t see the leadership. Some board members come to meetings and then check out,” he said. “They are on cruise control.”
Voters in Areas 3 and 4 will be able to vote in the Ventura Community College Board District board race by mail-in ballot or on Nov. 6 at the polls.