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Accrediting Commission’s Findings on SBCC Trustees Surface, Detailing Series of Violations

Noozhawk obtains a copy of the scathing report that reveals 'many missteps' by the board, including its evaluation process of former President Andreea Serban

A confidential report from a state oversight agency documents several violations of the SBCC Board of Trustees, including some troubling revelations about its conduct in closed session.

Findings that the board violated its own rules, failed to delegate authority to former President Andreea Serban, and either didn’t understand or dismissed the Brown Act are all included in the document. (Scroll down the page for the full report.)

Investigators from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges made a two-day visit to the campus last fall, interviewing trustees, staff, students and some residents about a complaint alleging trustees were out of compliance, particularly with the role as a governing board.

Longtime board members were unseated in 2010, and new trustees Marty Blum, Marsha Croninger, Peter Haslund and Lisa Macker were voted in, drawing on upheaval from the Continuing Education program and changes within SBCC’s parent-child workshops. Soon after, Serban was dismissed in closed session, and controversy has since surrounded the board.

The commission met in January and discussed the Board of Trustees, but did not release its findings publicly. Though the college has received the findings, officials have stated that the conclusions were to remain confidential until a final decision was reached. The college has 30 days to respond to the findings before the commission reaches a decision, and could face sanctions if the oversight agency isn’t satisfied.

Noozhawk received the 16-page report outlining the findings from an anonymous source on Wednesday, but with a return address of SBCC.

SBCC Acting Superintendent Jack Friedlander issued a statement Thursday rebuking whoever leaked the document, saying the report was to be kept confidential to protect the review process.

“It is especially troubling in an institution of higher education, which is expected to lead by example, that someone associated with SBCC has chosen for his or her own personal reasons to leak this report,” he said. By not following those rules, the college and board members have been portrayed in ways that are “inaccurate, unbalanced and not reflective of actual events.”

Friedlander added that the college will continue to honor the rules and fully cooperate with the ACCJC through the remainder of the investigation.

The package sent to Noozhawk included a letter dated Jan. 31 from Commission President Barbara Beno to Friedlander.

In addition to two letters of response from the board after the complaint was issued, Beno said the commission received numerous letters about individual trustees and others with an interest in the issues. Six significant findings were mentioned in her letter to Friedlander.

One of the most revealing findings surrounded Serban’s dismissal, when the trustees made “many missteps” while trying to come up with a process to evaluate her performance. 

The board didn’t follow its own policies, and members’ confusion about what to include in open and closed sessions and not including Serban in the discussions “point to a board unfamiliar and inexperienced with established processes” to evaluate the president, the letter stated.

Because all of Serban’s evaluations were in closed session last year, the public was kept largely in the dark on what was occurring, and county counsel found that the board had not violated the Brown Act. But after reviewing board minutes, emails and other documents, the commission found that “the board and individual trustees either do not understand the Brown Act, or they choose to ignore it.”

The report also states that Haslund, the board president, stated during an interview that following the Brown Act is problematic at times and limits the actions of the board, “giving the appearance that the Brown Act is a barrier for him and some of the other board members,” the report stated.

Though the Brown Act isn’t directly tied to ACCJC standards, “ignoring or violating law does constitute a violation of the standards,” the letter stated.

Another finding says trustees interfered with college governance processes on more than one occasion. The commission found that trustees failed to delegate full authority to Serban to implement policies without their interference. The commission also states that the trustees violated their own standards of conduct.

One specific item noted that trustees attended meetings of the College Planning Council, a governance committee, without letting the CPC know in advance in order to monitor Serban’s conduct at the meetings. The complaint also listed Croninger as trying to direct the agenda of a CPC meeting, as well as Blum attending another meeting to “check into a complaint” that Serban was “dominating the meetings.”

Serban later told Beno that Blum had never talked with her about the concerns, and did not notify her beforehand that she would be attending the meeting.

“It became evident that an arrangement was in place that had at least one new board member, if not two, present at every CPC board meeting,” Serban said.

Therefore, the report concluded, “the trustees must learn and accept their proper roles as policy-makers” and operate accordingly.

Another finding states that the board operated outside of policy for approving courses. Curricula matters are the responsibility of the Academic Senate, according to California law.

“The board interfered with the curriculum, and such interference undermines the authority of faculty and illustrated a lack of respect for the established processes,” the finding stated.

The fact that the commission has received complaints from other trustees about the newly elected board members since Serban’s dismissal “suggests that inappropriate behavior may arise at any meeting and that inappropriate behavior has not been eliminated,” according to the report.

There also may be a conflict of interest among trustees enrolled in the Continuing Ed program when considering changes to the division brought forward by Serban. The college’s policies on ethics and conflict of interest are insufficient and don’t deal with what actions should be taken if a trustee violates them, according to the commission.

It also found that certain trustees “micromanaged” school administrators, ignoring Serban’s authority.

One interaction between Blum and Dr. Ofelia Arrellano, vice president of Continuing Education, is mentioned from a study session last winter. Arrellano was asked by Blum about operational decisions within her department, and Arrellano responded that it was up to her to make those decisions. Blum said that she respected Arrellano, but that Blum’s father was the manager of a Fortune 500 company and reminded Arrellano that she had been mayor for eight years.

“I hope you take that with a grain of salt knowing who I am and knowing who you are,” Blum told Arrellano.

Croninger is also mentioned in the section as wanting to know “how each director spends his or her days, what do they do everyday.”

The commission said the incidents “indisputably reflect efforts by one or more trustees to micro-manage the operations of the college,” as well as impose their management styles, “unnecessarily interrogate” administrators and bypass Serban’s authority.

The board must understand it is a policymaking body, and may not dictate how to manage staff or administrators, the commission reiterated.

Another finding said the trustees created dysfunctional interactions among college constituencies. One piece of evidence listed came from Trustee Joan Livingston in a letter penned Sept.  23. Livingston said the trustees operate “outside of board policy” and exercise “selective and relative ethics.”

“We urgently need to find ways to guard against these abuses of the trustee office now and in the future,” she wrote to the commission.

The report also stated that while many say the new board majority has created “a climate of fear and intimidation,” another significant number of faculty and staff voiced the opposite view, saying the board brought needed change to the college. 

Commissioners said they realize that the college has been through a tumultuous year, but expressed concern that the trustees and senior management of the college “do not appear to understand or even acknowledge the depth and intensity of the schism among their own colleagues and subordinates.”

Some of the new trustees have taken a dismissive view of the complaints filed against them, claiming they did nothing wrong, according to the commission.

“While they may have good intentions, the trustees must recognize they have a problem among the members of the board and must address and fix the problem,” the letter stated.

Accreditation Letter

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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