Citing frustration over college administration’s threats of layoffs and his inability to get accurate budget figures, Southwestern College Governing Board Member William Stewart resigned on March 1, only four months after he was elected. His resignation sent a shockwave through the campus community. Board members, administrators, faculty and classified employees expressed disbelief, disappointment, confusion and anger in the sudden and unexpected decision by the board’s newest member.
Stewart informed The Sun that he was resigning out of frustration with district administrators, whom he said were not providing complete and accurate information to board members or union negotiators.
“Without information, all the information (his emphasis), oversight is a sham,” he wrote in his letter of resignation.
Stewart said he believes Southwestern College has a history of governing boards making important decisions without doing their due diligence. The results, he said, were catastrophic.
“They didn’t do careful examination of the finances and the financial records and we’ve seen where that’s taken Southwestern before,” he said.
Stewart compared the current state of district negotiations and fiscal management to the Titanic. In his letter he referenced Titanic Captain Edward Smith, who went down with the doomed ocean liner in 1912.
“If I am the captain of a vessel and I see clearly to port, but I have one blind spot to starboard, and I have crew members that will not provide me with a clear view off my starboard bow,” he wrote, “then I as captain am taking a grave risk to continue forward, a risk for me an my crew and all the passengers on board. I, for one, am unwilling to take such a risk.”
He also said he could not abide by the district’s negotiating strategies, “including the threat of layoffs.”
“When layoffs are being discussed first in negotiations with employees, it is clearly a sign of a top-down governance model,” he said.
College president Dr. Melinda Nish and her vice presidents are “good people,” he said, but “the way they approach their problem solving is radical.”
Stewart said he was also dissatisfied with SWC’s campus governance culture, which he said was not shared governance, but merely “advisory.” The San Diego City College District, where he is a faculty member, has a truly collaborative shared governance system with meaningful input from all sectors of the district, he said. SWC, Stewart said, has a powerless Shared Consultation Council that the superintendent is free to ignore.
Stewart said governance at SWC is from the top down in violation of the California Educational Code and state laws calling for shared governance of state community colleges.
“Shared governance means they’re sharing in the governing process, so it’s not a top-down system,” he said. “Shared consultation suggests they (staff) have a role as an advisor. I personally do not believe the direction faculty and staff would be inclined to move so quickly to discussions on layoffs if the whole college process involves a real collaborative model.”
Stewart said he is very frustrated with the lack of transparency at SWC and its inability or unwillingness to provide accurate budget figures to board members.
“From my perspective when board members are not permitted to have access to the information to the point where they can analyze it, then they effectively don’t have access. That’s sort of like token access because to do careful in depth analysis means you have to study it. It doesn’t mean somebody waves a sheet in front of you.”
Stewart said there was particular information that he was not permitted to have pertaining to the budget.
“Any of the stuff I could draw down from public sites I could have just like anybody else could,” said Stewart. “Other documentation that I and the board have specifically asked for, I was not permitted to carefully examine it. Information that is vital for making decisions that are going on right now and I can’t make important decisions without truly understanding the numbers behind it.”
He said it is a board member’s responsibility to be properly informed. Without the proper information, he said, he cannot fulfill his duty.
“I’m not going to act as if I am fulfilling my fiduciary duty, like a good custodian, when in fact I am not being permitted to do so,” he said.
Governing Board President Humberto Peraza said he is disappointed that Stewart chose to resign. He said this college and board have committed itself to make changes after a decade of corruption.
“This is a tough job,” said Peraza. “As a board you have disagreements, but do your best to work together to make significant changes to correct a corrupted system. As a board, we have successfully accomplished needed changes.”
Peraza said it is like being a football coach, when you lose a player you find a player that will want to work with the team to make needed changes.
“Southwestern College has been through tougher times than this,” he said. “We will get through this and we will find someone to fill the board seat and continue our work and commitment that I have seen the board work so hard on since becoming a board member.”
Faculty union president Eric Maag said he agreed with Stewart’s comments regarding lack of transparency and shared governance, but losing Stewart on the board is “devastating.”
“It means we have not moved forward with shared governance,” he said. “We have to find a way to provide transparency through all facets of the college so that we can finally move forward from the problems we faced in the past and the problems that we continue to face.”
Maag said SWC needs a governing board that is well informed to provide leadership to the college. He said the Southwestern College Education Association (SCEA) union also lacks clear information that it needs to bargain in fair practice.
Board member Norma Hernandez said she is surprised and saddened by the news of Stewart’s resignation.
“It was in December that I had the privilege of swearing Stewart in and I believe he brought good perspective and very valuable ideas to the board,” she said. “The role of the board has a lot of challenges and complexities, and we are not always going to agree and we don’t not always think the same. It behooves us to work together.”
Hernandez said the board takes its oversight role very seriously. She also said the college is still in the process of getting its information and financial reporting systems in place, and patience is required.
Nish said she disagreed with Stewart’s comments regarding lack of shared governance at SWC. She said governance policy is in compliance with state law. Nish also said the SWC Shared Consultation Council has been very valuable to the college and its voice has been embraced by both the administration and the governing board.
“I was very excited to have Bill on board because I thought he brought with him a perspective that added to the board,” said Nish.
Governing board member Tim Nader said he tends to have the same views as Stewart when it comes to the role of the board, as well as appropriate interactions between the board and the rest of the campus community.
“I think as to the financial issues I was listening with an open mind to different points of view and I really had not made up my mind yet on some of the issues that he’s talking about,” he said. “I very much regret Bill’s decision to resign. I think he had extremely valuable insights on financial issues and that he was hoping to contribute those insights to improve our deliberations, our decision making and, frankly, I was hoping he would contribute those insights.”
Nader said he is sympathetic to Stewart’s position and hopes he will continue contributing to the board.
Randy Beach, Academic Senate president, said he was surprised at Stewart’s unexpected resignation.
“I know he had a real vision and a real commitment to making Southwestern as best as it could be,” said Beach. “I have no animosity towards him personally, he made the decision he needed to make and I hope that we can learn from this situation. So that we can ask ourselves: what are we doing that would cause a board member to become so frustrated and feel that he could not make any decisions based on what he was given?”
Professor Robert Unger, SCEA grievance chair, said he had great hopes Stewart would help the board find budget solutions and clear all of the confusion of the past.
“I hope that Bill’s choice to resign would be a wake up call for SWC and for the South Bay that the corruption and mismanagement of SWC budget and the administrative structure is far more fractured than we had previously been led to believe,” he said.
Classified union negotiator Silvia Lugo said she is upset about Stewart’s decision to leave the board.
“I don’t know what info he has or doesn’t have,” she said. “I’m saddened and disappointed that he feels that way. We have a new executive team in place and a much stronger board in place, a more capable board that I felt confident with them governing as well as the executive team. I know I don’t always agree with their way of conducting business, but I have to trust to a certain degree that they’re working in the best interest of the college.”
Bruce MacNintch, California School Employees Association chapter president, said he was sorry to lose Stewart and that five board members are better than four.
“If he felt he was in a position that he could not take the necessary actions then that was his solution to the problem,” said MacNintch.
SWC Articulation Officer Veronica Burton said it is disenfranchising to lose Stewart from the board three months into a four-year term.
“After the 2010 and 2012 elections we finally saw a positive change,” she said. “It’s not there now. It is not in our administration and it is not in our board. This is damaging to the college, but I believe what he said is true.”
Stewart said his resignation is the best chance to force meaningful change at SWC.
“The people who for sure, for positive, were not responsible in any way for the negative financial outcome, are going to be the ones who pay the price,” said Stewart. “I cannot live with that.”
Contributions by Ana Bahena, Albert Fulcher, Nickolas Furr, Lina Chankar, Kasey Thomas and David McVicker.