A ‘Broken Board Culture’

The Peralta Community College District Board of Trustees has been roiled by conflict amid ongoing financial problems, according to a recent Alameda County civil grand jury report.

June 24, 2021
 
Peralta Community College District

An Alameda County civil grand jury report lambasted the Peralta Community College District Board of Trustees for maintaining poor shared governance practices, interfering in hiring decisions, holding secretive meetings, infighting, showing racial insensitivity and fostering an overall culture of incivility toward each other, administrators and staff.

The report, released Monday, said students were poorly served by a “broken board culture” that led to extensive administrative turnover and exacerbated long-standing financial troubles. The Bay Area district, which is part of the California Community College system, consists of the College of Alameda, Berkeley City College, Merritt College and Laney College.

The grand jury received eight formal complaints about trustees elected prior to 2020, the report said.

“Cohesion, civility, trust, and mutual respect are critical elements of an effective governing board,” the authors of the report wrote. “Tension, poor communication, lack of unified goals, and divisive individual behavior at Peralta have resulted in the board's inability to fulfill its mandate effectively. Interference in the traditional roles of the chancellor, secret meetings, and backroom dealing destroy staff morale and the board’s relationship with the administrative team. Without reform or change in board behavior, Peralta’s students, so in need of this essential institution, will continue to suffer.”

Cynthia Napoli-Abella Reiss, president of the Board of Trustees, said board members were already aware of the problems detailed in the report and had started to address them.

“The Civil Grand Jury highlighted issues that had been previously self-identified by the Board as areas that the Board has already initiated work on,” she said in a written statement. “I remain committed to leading the Peralta Community College Board of Trustees and to working closely with the Chancellor on issues identified in the report.”

The grand jury interviewed 19 people as part of the investigation, including current and former trustees, administrators, faculty members, and governance experts.

The report concluded that board members stepped outside the bounds of their roles by encouraging staff who bypassed the chancellor to bring issues directly to them, and by interfering with hiring processes overseen by the chancellor on multiple occasions between 2018 and 2020.

Regina Stanback Stroud, the former chancellor, left her position in July 2020, less than a year after she was hired. Her resignation letter accused trustees of undermining her role; interfering with complaints against board members; intervening in labor negotiations; “exhibiting hostility and contempt” toward administrators, especially Black executive staff; and engaging in “collusion with the unions against the interest of the district.”

“These issues cast a poor light on the board as a whole and the district -- and place the district and its four colleges in continual fiscal jeopardy thereby undermining the ability of Peralta Community College District to successfully meet the needs of students and the community,” Stroud wrote in the letter.

Jennifer Shanoski, president of the Peralta Federation of Teachers, a local affiliate of the faculty union, denied that the board played any inappropriate role in labor negotiations.

“The notion that there’s some secret collusion is absolutely absurd,” she said. “We think that one of our roles within the district is to share our perspective on information with board members. I live within the boundaries of the Peralta trustee district. I’m a constituent and many of our members are constituents. There is nothing that says we can’t write to our board members just like you would write to your city council member or your governor or your state representative or any other elected official.”

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The district has cycled through five chancellors in the last two and a half years and six chief financial officers in the past four and a half years, according to the report.

“That’s not the norm in community college districts,” said Larry Galizio, president and CEO of the Community College League of California, which represents trustees and CEOs in the California Community College system. “I mean, there’s turnover, but they’ve had more than their fair share of turnover and the length of time of these governing issues. These things need to be addressed and addressed as expeditiously as possible, but it requires hard work and a willingness to do that.”

The report also points to witness accounts that describe unprofessional behavior by some board members: a closed-door conversation in which a trustee “screamed and yelled” at an administrator, heated arguing in public meetings, a profanity-laced email exchange between several board members, and a meeting where an administrator was reduced to tears after a board member accused the administrator of dishonesty.

Meanwhile, the district has long suffered from financial woes. The state’s Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) conducted a 2019 analysis of the district’s financial status. FCMAT found that the district’s finances put the colleges at “extremely high risk” for insolvency and also pointed to regular conflicts between union leadership, college administrators and other district office departments. A prior FCMAT report in 2011 found similar issues, such as deviations from board policies and procedures and a lack of transparency.

The state’s Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges put all four colleges on probation in January 2020.

Mike-a Cooper, president of the Associated Students of Merritt College, said the ripple effects of the board’s dysfunctional dynamics and the colleges’ financial problems have been “deeply” felt by the students at his institution and the grand jury report was “painfully expectable.” Cooper, who uses the pronouns they and them, was selected to serve as a student trustee starting this summer. They described out-of-date campus infrastructure and a college financial aid office that lacked the staff needed to meet student demand, among other problems.

Students encounter “countless issues just due to understaffing, mismanagement and generally people not taking their jobs seriously because there’s no oversight or consequences unless you piss off the people who have this system running,” they said. The turnover of chancellors has also been “horrifically destructive to our morale, to our trust that things are well and good in the system.”

Jannett N. Jackson, interim chancellor of the district, said district leaders appreciated the “constructive criticism” in the grand jury report. She echoed the board president, Reiss, and said the district had already started working to fix the issues outlined in the report through a revised hiring policy that clarifies the central role of the chancellor and by holding workshops with trustees on leadership and civility, among other measures.

“We are cognizant of the challenges before us, and the work is just beginning,” she said in a statement. “This report from the Civil Grand Jury will help guide our direction for improvement and reaffirms the steps we have already taken as part of our own assessment.”

Jackson added, however, that the grand jury lacked “formal input from Peralta prior to the publishing of the report.”

“We believe the Grand Jury’s findings were impacted by the fact that they adopted certain allegations and complaints without a contextual understanding of District issues,” she said. “The Civil Grand Jury did not interview all relevant witnesses and appears to have unfairly discounted certain evidence, which may have led them to some faulty conclusions.”

Shanoski, of the Peralta Federation of Teachers, said union representatives were not among those consulted by the grand jury. She said, in her experience, trustees behaved professionally and were careful about confidentiality and adherence to the Brown Act, a California law that requires open access to meetings of public commissions, boards and councils.

She does believe, however, that a districtwide culture of blame has negatively affected students.

“The truth is always more complicated than just saying everything is wrong or everything is right,” she said. “I think many of our issues come from blaming one another instead of finding ways to actively engage with one another in dialogue and finding ways to work together to solve the problems instead of simply laying blame at the feet of others. I really don’t see the board as the issue here.”

Galizio, of the community college league, believes the board is making a good-faith effort to change. For example, trustees requested a review of their policies by the league in 2020, he said. The chancellor of the California Community College system, Eloy Ortiz Oakley, has been under some pressure to intervene in the Peralta district, Ed Source reported. Galizio said outside interference should “always be the last resort.”

“I don’t think we’re there yet,” Galizio said. “We don’t want to come to that.”

Paul Feist, a spokesperson for the California Community College system chancellor’s office, said the chancellor was reviewing the grand jury report and did not have a comment at this time.

Cooper said they feel “deeply conflicted and deeply motivated” by their new role as a student trustee, given the dynamics at play on the board.

“This is going to take more than systemic correction,” they said. “This is going to take a degree of cultural correction to address the amount of problems that we are dealing with.”

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