A board member's habit of maintaining an office on campus has gone from an arcane governance question to political controversy here, where Hispanic leaders are fed up with what they see as a pattern of micro management and insensitivity by members of the Maricopa Community College Board.
Tensions emerged last fall after a series of events that alarmed Latino faculty, students, and community members and prompted Latino lawmakers to draft legislation aimed at reining in the board. The first bill, introduced in the state Senate this month would cut trustee terms from six years to four and impose a two-term limit. Measures yet to be introduced include one that would expand the board from five to nine seats and a more drastic proposal to disband local boards and replace them with a statewide body.
"Every time we have had an issue at the board, we hit a roadblock," said State Rep. Steve Gallardo, a Phoenix Democrat. "If you looked at who was standing in the way, it was predominantly two board members. How do we make them more accountable to the community?"
Hispanics constitute about 24 percent of Maricopa residents, and 18 percent of students within the 10-campus district, one of the nation's largest. But some 36 percent of K-12 students are Hispanic, and by 2014, Hispanics are expected to surpass 40 percent of high-school graduates, according to a report by the Western Interstate Commission on Higher Education (WICHE). (See story, page 19.)
"Arizona is going to be a majority minority state before the end of the decade," said David Longanecker, executive director of WICHE. "If Arizona wants to be both economically visible and socially just, it's going to have to find a way to make sure it's serving that large share of its population. Arizona hasn't quite fully come to grips with the changing nature of its population."
TENSIONS MOUNT OVER TIME
Still, the turmoil at Maricopa comes as a surprise to education leaders who know Maricopa as a premier institution with a reputation for fostering strong Hispanic leadership.
The tensions began last summer, after Chancellor Fred Gaskin was fired, and the board limited candidates for a replacement to existing presidents and vice-chancellors, in spite of community pressure to conduct a nationwide search.
But by late December, two additional events provoked further outrage: In the first instance, an executive session discussion about the performance of Phoenix College President Corinna Gardea spurred concerns that the five-member board was prepared to fire Gardea, one of only two Latino presidents in the district. Recent retirements of two Hispanic presidents brought the numbers down, as did the departure of a third, Tessa Martinez Pollock, who had faced fire from board members seeking her termination. Community members feared that Pollock's experience would be repeated with Gardea.
The second episode involved an inflammatory email that was circulated districtwide by a math professor denouncing a student-organized Dia de la Raza celebration as a separatist action. Glendale Community College professor Walter Kehowski's missive complained about "diversity double-talk" and extolled "the superiority of Western civilization." It also contained links to Internet sites that espoused White separatist notions.
The antagonism spilled over into a December board meeting, when Latino students and professors were joined by influential community members to press the board to renew Gardea's contract and set limits on Kchowski's electronic communication.
"This board has failed to administer its policies in a very appropriate and equitable manner and has allowed a hostile, chilled environment to exist and evolve," said Manuel Frias, a local businessman. "There is absolutely no room in education for this to be allowed to continue to happen. This would never fly in a court of law, and I don't think you want to go there. …