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How SBCC Trustees Proceed After Investigation’s Scathing Report Is an Open Question

Accrediting Commission document's disclosure ignites new debate as clock ticks for board's formal response to allegations of governing violations

Noozhawk’s publication last week of a report by a state oversight agency investigating SBCC’s Board of Trustees revealed new details to a community hungry for information about the simmering controversy. Where the board goes from here is anyone’s guess.

The dispute stems from the 2010 trustees election when a slate of four challengers ousted longtime incumbents on the strength of a platform of reform. The new board majority moved quickly to implement its agenda and the trustees effectively dismissed school President Andreea Serban in July 2011, placing her on paid administrative leave through June 30, 2012.

During the trustees’ deliberations, a complaint had been filed with the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges alleging that the board was not complying with its own rules of governance.

The Accrediting Commission launched an investigation and, in a 16-page report dated Jan. 31, delivered its preliminary findings to SBCC Acting President Jack Friedlander. A copy of the confidential report was mailed to Noozhawk anonymously, in an envelope with a return address marked only “SBCC.” (Scroll down the page to read the full report.)

The commission’s report painted a damning picture of a board that violated its own rules and refused to delegate authority to the school’s former president. According to the document, investigators concluded the trustees either didn’t understand or dismissed the Brown Act, the nearly 60-year-old California law that guarantees the public’s right to attend and participate in meetings of local legislative bodies.

It remains to be seen how the trustees will answer the report, and if that will be enough to keep the Accrediting Commission from issuing sanctions. The board has 30 days to respond to the findings, after which the commission will issue a final decision.

Friedlander expressed chagrin Thursday that the commission’s report had been leaked.

“Under ACCJC policy, this report is to be kept confidential, and it is only upon final commission action that a public report is made,” he said in a statement, adding that the policy ensures a fair 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,” Friedlander said. “By not following established rules designed to result in a fair and unbiased process, the college and board members have been portrayed in ways that are inaccurate, unbalanced and not reflective of actual events.”

In explaining Noozhawk’s decision to post the report, publisher Bill Macfadyen cited the public’s right to know.

“SBCC and its Board of Trustees are public entities with obligations for openness and transparency,” he said. “We believe there is an overriding public interest in this issue and we’ll continue to investigate it as thoroughly, as responsibly and as fairly as we can.”

The last finding mentioned in the Accrediting Commission’s report was only a short paragraph, but it has some troubling implications about what may be taking place behind closed doors.

After reviewing documents like board minutes and emails related to Serban’s closed-session evaluation, 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 notes that board president Peter Haslund stated during an interview that following the Brown Act is problematic at times and limits the actions of the board. According to the commission’s report, Haslund’s statement gives “the appearance that the Brown Act is a barrier for him and some of the other board members.”

Although the Brown Act isn’t directly tied to the Accrediting Commission’s standards, “ignoring or violating law does constitute a violation of the standards,” the report stated.

According to the report, however, whether the trustees violated the law is somewhat of an open question.

Last August, Santa Barbara County Chief Deputy District Attorney Jerry Lulejian issued a statement saying that the trustees did not violate the Brown Act in their dealings with Serban.

District Attorney Joyce Dudley said she’s willing to look at the Accrediting Commission’s final report when it’s issued to determine whether the law was violated.

“My office is always willing to look at any new information or evidence,” she told Noozhawk on Friday.

But SBCC’s legal counsel, Craig Price of Griffith & Thornburgh LLP, said the Accrediting Commission’s references to the Brown Act missed the mark “by a wide margin.”

Price said the observation that the trustees didn’t understand or chose to ignore the Brown Act should have been backed up with facts so the board could respond to the allegation, instead of the report “making vague references to meeting minutes, emails, etc.”

“Since Brown Act issues are completely outside the purview of the ACCJC, they shouldn’t have been included,” he told Noozhawk.

Regardless, the board has leeway to make public the minutes of Serban’s evaluation if it believes it would serve an “overriding public interest,” according to Terry Francke, general counsel and co-founder of, the nonprofit Center for Public Forum Rights.

The Brown Act allows, but doesn’t compel, closed sessions on personnel issues, he said, leaving the trustees a way to clear up rumors and misperceptions.

When asked whether there was an overriding interest in Serban’s case, Francke demurred.

“That’s for local residents and students and faculty to decide,” he said.

If anecdotal comments on Noozhawk’s reporting are any indication, the controversy is far from settled. For more than a year, Noozhawk readers have been hotly debating the SBCC situation and last week’s publication of the report spurred additional discussion. (Noozhawk’s note: Our editors do not correct typos, punctuation or style in reader comments.)

“What you have got to love is how this dysfunctional Board attempted to coverup this report, like everything else they have tried to hide from the public in the last year,” lou segal posted on Feb. 16.

“I am a former full time faculty member and attended several Board Meetings and watched sadly the intentional drive to fire Dr. Serban,” jolly joy posted on Feb. 17. “But I had no idea how manipulative and purposeful in ignoring guidelines that the new trustees were until I read the letter.The letter’s author is too kind in attributing missteps to lack of knowledge. They attended sessions educating new Comm. College Trustees. They had the specific outlines from the sessions. Besides ignoring the Brown act which is law they made choices that have disrupted the faculty, student body and staff of an outstanding community college.”

Larry Saltzman took the opposite view.

“The Board was elected because of widespread dissatisfaction with the direction the college was taking,” he posted on Feb. 16. “Dr. Serban was a divisive and difficult figure. I personally am happy she is gone. I stand with the actions of the Board.”

In a post on Feb. 18, Long Time Resident said it was time to move on.

“I am sick and tired of all of this beating a dead horse and sour grapes that just go on and on. We are where we are, and now is the time for everyone to move forward. It is a new day and the Acting President and the Board need to address current problems. How are they supposed to do this when they are continually getting dragged into the mud of the past.”

And one reader had pointed words for the messenger.

“There was an order to keep this confidential until a specific time, yet someone wanted this info out,” whatsername posted on Feb. 16. “Who? Obviously the serban sympathizers. This kind of slanted reporting is why I rarely read Noozhawk anymore.”

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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