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."

Chancellor Suarez told the district board at its July 18 meeting that the state investigation into Cuyamaca's noncredit classes was over. But on August 17, Marty Rubio again e-mailed the Faculty Research Council, specifically in regard to exercise science noncredit classes. Rubio wrote, "Since July 1 we (accountability staff) have been without a filled position. Effective September 1 that position will be filled and your concerns will be back on track. Our goal is to not only address your concern but ensure the district and college are accurately reporting their apportionment...."

In the meantime, the Grossmont-Cuyamaca district published a news release saying that on September 13, Jim Austin, vice chancellor of business services, "will be splitting his time between San Diego County and Sacramento during a four-month stint overseeing fiscal policy for the chancellor's office of the California Community Colleges.

"An interjurisdictional agreement between GCCCD Chancellor Omero Suarez and state Chancellor Mark Drummond has cleared the way for Austin to serve as the interim vice chancellor for fiscal policy for the state community college system."

Austin is a temporary replacement in Sacramento for an employee who has taken another job. But critics are saying his new assignment includes overseeing the investigation into Cuyamaca College's noncredit classes, which as a local district employee he is also responsible for administering.

Omero Suarez has been facing other troubles in the past year, including ongoing faculty contract negotiations, a San Diego County lawsuit to force the district to pay for roads to accommodate growing traffic next to Cuyamaca College, fallout from the firing last December of popular Grossmont College president Ted Martinez Jr., and a Grossmont faculty vote of no confidence. But in the view of Tim Caruthers, most threatening to Suarez's agenda is the potential loss in next week's elections of the three incumbent boardmembers. Caruthers is not up for election this time, but he says that those boardmembers who are -- Deanna Weeks, Rick Alexander, and Bill Garrett -- have been thoroughly compliant to Suarez's wishes. "I don't remember any one of them ever voting against something the chancellor wanted," Caruthers tells me.

Without naming which one, Caruthers calls one of next week's challengers a "very strong candidate," all the while expressing willingness to work with any of the winners. Running against Weeks for Seat One are Mary Kay Rosinski, Donald Sauter, and Emad Bakeer. Alexander is facing Larry Octon, Rafah Alkhafaji, and Barbara Alexander for Seat Two. Seat Three is being contested by Garrett and educator Shannon Anne O'Dunn. One more position, Seat Five, became vacant when boardmember Wendell Cutting died this summer. That race features Arkan Somo, supported by the Friends and Neighbors of Grossmont and Cuyamaca Colleges PAC, against former high school teacher Greg Barr and school administrator Scott Cioffi. Another PAC, Citizens for Educational Responsibility, is endorsing Rosinski, Octon, O'Dunn, and Barr.

I ask Caruthers whether the discovery of Omero Suarez's altered contract is likely to affect next week's elections. "The challengers sure ought to be focusing on it," he says. Seat Three challenger Shannon O'Dunn, who calls herself a moderate Republican, tells me by phone that the contract fiasco is not surprising given the lack of transparency shown by Suarez and the incumbents. "It comes from their business rather than educational orientations," she says. "They hold too many secret [closed door] meetings with no minutes." When I ask whether she thinks the district has gotten state money from illegitimate classes, O'Dunn remarks, "Noncredits are not always naughty. But it would be shocking if there was a babysitting component to the nursing-home classes and people were signed into them without their knowledge. That would be abuse of our most vulnerable citizens."

When Suarez's contract change first came to light, Tim Caruthers says he filed a Public Records Act request for all documents and e-mails relating to it. He still has not received the e-mails, he says, but he did see that two days after his request, the contract had been changed back to its original wording and was signed again by both Suarez and Weeks. He then attempted to bring it up at the October 17 board meeting. But board president Weeks called the attempt out of order because it was not an agendized item. She had security escort Caruthers out of the meeting room after he pressed the issue.

"In the board meeting, when I asked, Deanna said she reads everything from the district that crosses her desk," Caruthers tells me. "So she can't now be saying she didn't know she was signing the contract change. Both she and Omero knew what they were signing. If you worked for the district and secretly changed your contract, you know you'd be fired."

And so Caruthers, at his October 19 press conference, called for the resignations of both Suarez and Weeks and announced that he has been meeting with the FBI to bring about a criminal investigation into the altered contract. In his own defense, Suarez sent an e-mail to district faculty and staff explaining that he took responsibility only for a procedural error. He accompanied a second e-mail with two legal opinions from district counsel that exonerate him. "But those guys aren't criminal attorneys," says Caruthers.

A Cuyamaca professor, who asked not to be identified, criticizes Caruthers for ambushing Weeks at the board meeting and bringing in the FBI. "Couldn't he have gone to Deanna first," he asks, "and found out what was going on? But Caruthers was looking for maximum influence as the election approaches.

"What Chancellor Suarez did was extremely unwise," the professor tells me. "But the Research Council is determined to dig up dirt on him. Whenever the Grossmont faculty doesn't get its way, they jump on the chancellor. Suarez wasn't the first chancellor they gave a vote of no confidence. They did it to his predecessor too. They don't like the board incumbents for standing up to them. And what's going on now is simply a struggle for resources. Because of its size, the Grossmont faculty has always been the more dominant force in the district." (Grossmont's full-time faculty numbers 220 to Cuyamaca's 75.)

As for the election, one sign of its outcome may be the financial contributions raised by both sides. By September 30, the Friends and Neighbors of Grossmont and Cuyamaca Colleges PAC had raised $37,377. However, in an ironic twist, the PAC endorsing the challengers, Citizens for Educational Responsibility, has raised $43,673, most of it from Grossmont College professors. And that does not include $16,000 that United Faculty, the faculty union, has recently voted to give the challengers' PAC. Most Cuyamaca faculty resented their union dues going against their interests. "United Faculty," says my Cuyamaca source, "does not unite; it is dividing the two campuses."

On Monday, Deanna Weeks finally spoke up, e-mailing Grossmont's and Cuyamaca's faculty and staff. "I am appalled by the actions taken by Chancellor Suarez concerning his contract. I want a full and immediate investigation. The investigation needs to be by an independent entity with no involvement or participation by the chancellor. He can direct Vice Chancellor [Jim] Austin to see that it gets done.... I want the results of the investigation placed on the November [after the election] governing board agenda, closed session, as required by law, and the board will take appropriate action at that time."

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