Citing staff mistrust, lack of communication, favoritism and an environment ripe for fraud, the Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) report loomed over the first Peralta Community College District Board of Trustees meeting of the fall semester Sept 10.
With Peralta highlighted as a concern during the July California Community College Board of Governors meeting, the FCMAT report was supposed to be the topic of a 7:00 p.m. “study session” that would precede the 7:30 regular meeting time, according to the public agenda. However, Tuesday’s meeting did not start until almost 8:00 p.m. and a public study session of the report did not take place.
Instead, trustee President Julina Bonilla suggested a reordering of the agenda due to “sea of blue,” a large contingent of Peralta Federation of Teachers (PFT) members who signed up to speak during public comment. More than 75 faculty members were present, according to PFT President Jennifer Shanoski. Many of the speakers cited issues highlighted in the FCMAT report, such as favoritism in upper management and lack of communication, which result in mistrust for faculty and staff at Peralta.
Richard Thoele, President of the SEIU’s chapter for the Peralta Colleges, followed up PFT members during public comment and cited examples of district dysfunction. Thoele spoke about his experience at the district’s Office of Admissions and Records where he serves as an Admissions and Records Clerk.
Operating without a Financial Aid Director for almost a year, while one financial analyst resigned and another one was planning on leaving, Thoele said, “We are a skeleton crew.”
He estimated three to four people are currently in the department to support admissions and records throughout the district.
“We handle the analyzing of systems, we work with the faculty, we make sure enrollment is as smooth as possible,” Thoele said. “Any disruptions to the district office does impact enrollment.”
While reading letters sent to the union, Thoele said his department has seen a turnover of eight managers within the last three to four years.
“Often times that department runs by itself, without any direction, without any guidance. The level of frustration in that office is bringing down morale,” Thoele said.
Staff concerns voiced during the public comments portion of the meeting included the lack of healthcare benefits for part-time staff, a pay gap between full-time and part-time staff, and a high manager turnover which at times required staff members to train their incoming managers. After public comments, Board President Bonilla made a brief statement thanking the attendees who made remarks.
“These issues that you raise resonate with this board,” Bonilla said. “It is only through your action that this board is able to put all the pieces together to have a complete story about what is going on.”
The FCMAT report, released on June 28, specifically cited leadership turnover as one of many factors that has given Peralta an “excessively high” fiscal health risk score of 69.9 percent. Peralta’s financial problems could result in an emergency takeover by the state.
FCMAT’s research team interviewed staff who expressed frustration and cited a “lack of accountability” where “accusations of favoritism have left employees questioning the ethics of district leadership.”
Past leadership regularly overrode policies, according to FCMAT, leaving staff unsure of how they manage their roles because of a lack of consistency and accountability. The report also said that administrators and staff “seem to have lost sight” of the district’s mission and they do not consider that what they do (or do not do) affects the rest of the district.
FCMAT researchers cited that students were rarely mentioned as the purpose for the district’s existence and that no one expressed that the district office exists to provide support and oversight to the colleges
According to Perala’s recently released Unrestricted General Fund Expenditure Budget for 2019–2020, 80 percent of the budget goes to salary and benefits. Retiree benefits are budgeted at $9 million, while part-time staff salaries are budgeted at about $10 million. Employee compensation is the largest budgetary expense for the district.
A decision on whether or not the state will take over the Peralta District could be forthcoming. When the California Community Colleges Board of Governors meets on Sept. 16 in Northridge, Board of Trustees President Julina Bonilla and Acting Chancellor Fran White are set to give a livestream presentation to the board and discuss Peralta’s fiscal situation as well as the search for a permanent chancellor.
Acting Chancellor Frances White will provide a report-back on the meeting with the Board of Governors related to the FCMAT report on Sept. 18 from 3:30–4:00 p.m. at the College-wide Open Forum located at Laney College, room T-850.