Chancellor Suarez and His Friends

What were they thinking? Sometime in August, Omero Suarez, chancellor of the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District, and Deanna Weeks, the district's governing board president, signed a secretly altered version of the chancellor's contract. The change removed from the contract the "Maximum Cash Settlement" section, or buyout clause, which had limited the maximum number of months the chancellor could be paid upon the contract's termination to 12. Without the clause, Suarez could receive 18 months' pay. Chiropractor and district boardmember Tim Caruthers learned of the change on October 8. He held a press conference on October 19 at Grossmont College to disclose it.

The chancellor serves at the discretion of the board, and Weeks is running for her first district election. She was appointed to fulfill a board vacancy two years ago. But according to a number of Grossmont faculty members, this story starts four years ago.

In 2002, according to campaign-contribution reports filed with the San Diego County Registrar of Voters, the political action committee Friends of Grossmont and Cuyamaca Community Colleges received monetary contributions of $275,468 to help pass Proposition R, a bond measure to raise $207 million for new construction and repairs on the two campuses. The proposition passed, and much of the work is now nearing completion. Omero Suarez has been highly praised for leading the proposition's passage.

Among the contributors to the PAC, three contractors saw their donations pay off. In 2004, Architects Mosher Drew Watson and Ferguson won the contract to design Grossmont College's Digital Arts and Sculpture Complex. The company donated $1000 to the PAC. Early in 2006, Koch-Armstrong General Engineering was awarded the right to complete the Grossmont College track renovation project. Koch-Armstrong donated $100 to the PAC. Later this year, Johnson Barnes and Finch, Inc., who donated $2000, provided the doors and frames for the Cuyamaca College Science and Technology Building.

For the current election cycle, the PAC, which has changed its name to Friends and Neighbors of Grossmont and Cuyamaca Colleges, has turned its attention to electing three Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District governing boardmembers, including president Deanna Weeks. The other two are incumbents as well. As boardmembers, Weeks, Rick Alexander, and Bill Garrett, along with Suarez, helped manage the Proposition R work, including choosing contractors to carry it out. All three incumbents are also members of the East County Economic Development Council, a nonprofit organization devoted to furthering local business activity. Weeks is its president.

The PAC has drawn more contributions from contractors. Two of the donors to the Prop R campaign repeated their original gifts. In addition, Sundt Construction of Arizona, which has been working on the Digital Arts and Sculpture Complex, contributed $1000. Gafcon Construction Consultants donated $5000.

On its website, Gafcon describes its relationship with the district: "The passage of the local bond measure, Prop R, means more than $200 million will be available for repairs, renovation and new construction at Grossmont College and Cuyamaca College over the next 10 years. The Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District Governing Board selected Gafcon to manage the timing, cost and quality of Prop. R projects on the [two] campuses, as well as estimate procedures, budget accounting, design guidelines and reporting."

But the most surprising entries on the PAC's campaign-contribution report are gifts from six East County nursing homes: Victoria Special Care Center, Somerset Intermediate Care, Parkside Special Care Center, Magnolia Special Care Center, Lo-Har Gardens, and California Special Care Center. During the July 1 to September 30 reporting period, the homes each donated $300. All of the homes are owned by Kennon S. Shea and Associates. At the time of this writing, no one was answering the phone at the company's headquarters.

Los Angeles attorney Martha Torgow tells me by phone that in the wake of capital-spending bond measures it is common for contractors and architects to make substantial contributions to incumbent community college governors. For nursing homes to do it is suspicious, she says.

For the past several years, Cuyamaca College has offered noncredit "movement classes" at local nursing homes. Torgow speculates that "when the college provides the classes at taxpayers' expense, the homes don't have to pay for similar services themselves."

Torgow represented the Faculty Research Council, a group of Grossmont College faculty, in requesting the California Community College Chancellor's Office to investigate the practice. One complaint was that the homes were registering people in the movement classes without their knowledge. Later the council added to its complaints noncredit "exercise science classes" offered by Cuyamaca at the college gym. The state compensates the Grossmont-Cuyamaca district $2000 for every noncredit enrollment. According to Faculty Research Council member Beth Smith, district officials, under the active leadership of Chancellor Suarez, have been allocating those funds with a joint-financing formula that favors Cuyamaca College over Grossmont. Last winter she said that the nursing-home classes are inappropriate as college offerings because they amount to little more than grouping residents into sessions where they move and wave their arms. Smith is also president of the Grossmont College Academic Senate.

But Cuyamaca officials and the district say that the funding formula being used was agreed to in 1998 as a way to help the younger and smaller college grow and attain a balance against certain financing advantages Grossmont College otherwise enjoys. Grossmont was founded in 1961, and its enrollment is more than 18,000. Cuyamaca has grown to nearly 8000 students from its founding in 1978.

In January, Marty Rubio, the state chancellor's fiscal services officer, e-mailed the Faculty Research Council confirming that the investigation it sought was under way. Rubio wrote, "We are trying to wrap up our work based on your past allegations. Some areas like minimum qualifications of [the noncredit] instructors have been confirmed, other topics are still unresolved."

After a Research Council inquiry in June into the investigation's status, the state chancellor's assistant general counsel Ralph Black on June 21 wrote, "We have not yet determined whether the College will be required to repay apportionment related to this review. However, we believe that the College is well on its way to correcting practices that led to your complaint. This e-mail constitutes our report to you as the complaining party, and we are closing our file on your complaint. However, we are continuing to work with the College to ensure its compliance with state requirements, and we will continue to closely monitor its related practices."

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