Faculty, Staff Confused and Concerned at Contra Costa

Three contract administrators will be let go in June, despite support from faculty and staff unions.

September 18, 2020
 
Courtesy Contra Costa Community College District
The governing board at Contra Costa Community College District

At the Contra Costa Community College District in California, faculty and district employees are confused and disappointed by the governing board's recent actions.

The district administration recommended that the board extend the contracts for three administrators: the chief financial officer, the chief human resources officer and the executive vice chancellor of administrative services, which is currently vacant as that staff member is serving as the interim chancellor. The plan was to provide more time for the new chancellor, when hired, to settle in and determine whether he or she wanted to hire different staff, said Tim Leong, district director of communications.

But three of the five trustees voted to not extend or renew the contracts.

Union leaders and staff are confused about the decision.

"I think we’re disappointed in the decision not to extend the contracts for those three contract administrators," Leong said, adding that he's confused because three other contract administrators had their contracts renewed.

"[The board members] were given multiple opportunities to clarify and help us understand what was the decision," he said. "They were silent."

The three administrators in question received positive evaluations, said Jeffrey Michels, executive director of United Faculty of Contra Costa Community College District and an English professor at Contra Costa College. "[The board members] are letting them all go even though our district is in very strong shape. We’ve had 15 years of labor peace," Michels said. "Why? They won't say."

Two of the three board members who did not vote to renew the contracts -- Vicki Gordon and Greg Enholm -- also separately committed ethics violations by harassing other board members and trying to influence the chancellor's decisions over the summer, further complicating the issue.

Unexplained Reasons

Inside Higher Ed reached out to the three board members who voted to not renew the contracts. Gordon deferred comments to the interim chancellor or board president. John Márquez did not respond to the request.

Enholm, the board secretary, provided several reasons for his decision.

In an email, Enholm said the decision originated in "the failure of those administrators to put into effect the recommendations the Board Workforce Diversity Committee made in 2013."

The trustees, who are elected by the constituents of the county, serve community members and not faculty and staff union leaders, he said.

"Seven years of those administrators failing to achieve the diversity, equity, and inclusion the committee wanted was enough justification when the community members strongly objected to those failures. I joined with the two original committee member trustees in voting for no extensions while the two trustees elected in 2018 with the support of the faculty and staff union leaders voted yes," he said.

In an interview, Enholm also said he was originally in favor of extending one contract -- that of the chief financial officer. But the interim chancellor left his previous position vacant for months, which Enholm believed was irresponsible. He said he could not be inconsistent and extend the contract of the person who reported to that vacant position.

Enholm also said that the chancellor of the district does not have much to do, and that he considers the executive vice presidents and associate vice chancellors to be "excess baggage."

The issue boils down to the size of the district and the number of trustees, Enholm said. The district has grown from two to three colleges and the county it serves has swelled in population, making five trustees inadequate. It was a mistake to add the third college, he said, and now the solution is to add more trustees, which would bring more diversity to the district, he said.

"I find myself being frustrated because I produce all these data saying we have systemic problems and they don’t get it," he said, referring to the other trustees.

The unions are comfortable with the current administrators, which he understands, Enholm said. But when you have white people in charge, they hire more white people, he said. Enholm is white.

Dio Shipp, associate vice chancellor and chief human resources officer, is one of the administrators who did not have his contract renewed. He is half African American and half Mexican American, and thus is the highest-ranking person of color at the district. Staff and the unions said he has been improving the district's diversity.

Shipp's legal counsel advised him not to comment on the issues. But he did say that he is "stunned" by Enholm's statements.

"Since becoming the CHRO for the district in 2013, our diversity numbers have greatly improved since that time and I’m absolutely proud of my staff and district leadership who helped my department improve with the diversification of our workforce," he said in an email. Contra Costa College was also recently recognized in a higher education diversity ranking as being the third most diverse college for faculty.

Leong first heard of this explanation for Enholm's decision from Inside Higher Ed. Staff asked for explanations from the board but were met with silence, he said.

That is because of the Brown Act, Enholm said. The Brown Act is a California law governing public comment portions of public meetings. It prohibits board members from taking action on items raised in the public comment section of meetings.

Enholm also said it was inappropriate to ask that question of him, as it should be asked of the board president.

"If they’re telling you I did not respond to them, I didn’t because it would have been illegal. They’re unaware of the laws," he said. "If these were three separate colleges, this wouldn't be happening."

It also only would matter if those asking were members of the district. If they work for the district, "that's irrelevant. That's what the union is for," he said.

When asked if the board could have released a statement or public letter explaining their decisions, knowing that people were confused by it, Enholm said that would have been skirting the law.

Anonymous Tips, Ethics Violations and Rumors of Retaliation

Enholm responded to a letter from the faculty union in August about the decisions and did not mention diversity. He did discuss the need to fill the vacant executive vice chancellor position.

But he also discussed an issue with Shipp. Shipp approached Enholm in 2015 to discuss an accusation of sexual harassment against Tim Farley, who was a trustee at the time. Farley resigned shortly after the report on the matter was finished, citing family issues. He told the student newspaper that he didn't "give credence" to the anonymous letter the district received with the tip.

Shipp didn't mention the anonymous letter to Enholm during their conversations.

"That is completely unacceptable to me," he said. If he had been allowed to read it, Enholm wrote, he could have convinced Shipp that nothing unusual had happened at the event and cited witnesses to back him up.

"Thus, Mr. Shipp’s highly inappropriate dealing with me (and thus the Board) on this anonymous letter matter, among other actions, has created a lack of my confidence in his ability to continue with the District and serve it with integrity in my opinion," he said.

Enholm and Gordon, who are up for re-election this year, have both separately been accused of ethics violations themselves. Enholm was found to have attempted to influence the previous chancellor, Fred Wood, to take actions that would benefit a faculty member. He signed a resolution agreeing to certain terms in July.

Gordon was found to have encouraged employees to pull the Management Council Memorandum of Understanding from an agenda for her personal gain. She also called board members and employees while inebriated to influence, threaten or harass them. She signed a resolution to certain terms in July, as well.

Michels, the leader of the faculty union, believes the decision to not renew the administrators' contracts may be a form of retaliation.

"We’ve spent the last 15 years building relationships with staff and management in an atmosphere of labor peace, focusing on how to serve our students," he said. "In six months, three board members have irresponsibly undermined those efforts and threatened the stability, including the financial stability, of our district."

Andy Li, one of the board members who did vote to renew the contracts, said he believes all three are doing fabulous jobs. He provided several examples of when the administrators chose not to take pay increases, or cut their pay, to help out the district.

"I feel there’s some personal goal or personal agenda among some board members," Li said.

Disappointment

All three contract administrators who did not have their contracts renewed have retained legal representation.

Eugene Huff, the interim chancellor, said he has filed retaliation and discrimination complaints against two board members. Jonah Nicholas, associate vice chancellor and chief financial officer, also said he has filed a complaint.

Both Huff and Nicholas said they are unaware of diversity goals from 2013. Nicholas does not remember that issue ever being discussed, and he was not aware that it was tied to contract renewals. Huff said he has not received explanations for why his contract was not renewed.

Both said they feel the decision is "unfortunate" for the district.​

Neal Skapura, president of AFSCME Local 1, the classified staff union for the district, believes the three administrators have the grounds for a retaliation lawsuit, citing Enholm's letter to the faculty union.

The Academic and Classified Senates of Diablo Valley College, part of the district, will have their first vote of no confidence for the governing board on Sept. 22, according to John Freytag, president of the Academic Senate at the college. The faculty and staff unions have committed to supporting the resolution if it is passed, he said.

"I’m extremely disappointed in these three elected officials who have [abdicated] their responsibility to the students, employees and citizens. Their self-serving reasons for doing all this are just incredibly destructive and unwarranted," Skapura said. "During COVID-19, the unions and management came together … We worked incredibly hard. To have them tear all this down because they just want power and want to be elected, it’s the kind of thing that just makes people angry."

The unions are standing up for management in this case because they need good managers, he said. It's also troubling to see people fired when they have excellent reviews, he said.

"This place has no rules," he said. "No one wants to work in that environment."

The unions are supporting two candidates, Judy Walters and Fernando Sandoval, who are running against Gordon and Enholm this year.

Michels, the leader of the faculty union, said he's upset that this is taking up people's energy during such a trying time.

"The entire district is being distracted and unsettled by these reckless board votes," he said.

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