SAN MARCOS — One president got an amended contract and another one stepped down from his post, bookends of a contentious Oct. 8 Palomar College Governing Board meeting.
Before the public comments portion of the meeting, trustee Mark Evilsizer stepped down as governing board president, citing an embattled tenor which has arisen on campus in recent months. And in one of the last agenda items of the meeting, Palomar College President Joi Lin Blake had her contract amended in a 3-1 vote — with trustee Norma Miyamoto absent and trustee Nina Deerfield voting “no” — to include an annual cost of living pay increase of 3.26%.
In announcing his decision to step down as president and remain on the board as a rank-and-file trustee, Evilsizer called the campus atmosphere at Palomar akin to “Mississippi with palm trees,” which drew backlash from multiple individuals during the meeting.
“The (Palomar Community College) district has severe financial difficulties, so much so that we have asked FCMAT to help address these issues,” said Evilsizer, pointing to the fact that the college is under investigation for its current economic status by the Fiscal Crisis and Management Assistance Team, a state agency which acts as a financial stewardship watchdog for public K-12 schools and community colleges. “We have some civil rights challenges and we are in fact having trouble accepting the need for diversity. We do not need to be known as Mississippi with palm trees. We need to support our administration and its efforts to address these challenges.”
Stepping aside after his remarks, the board voted on trustee Nancy Ann Hensch to serve as his successor. But the “Mississippi with palm trees” line would color the rest of the over-two-hour meeting.
One of those people who took umbrage with the line was Anel Gonzalez, the president of Council of Classified Employees/American Federation of Teachers Local 4522, a labor union representing the college’s non-professoriate and non-administrator full time staff.
“As a woman of color, I find trustee Evilsizer’s comment about this being Mississippi with palms incredibly insulting,” said Gonzalez during the Reports from College Groups portion of the meeting. “ As a matter of fact, using perceived bigotry as an excuse to not take accountability is alarming.”
In the past year, multiple administrators of color — Vice President of Finance Ron Perez; Vice President of Student Services Star Rivera-Lacy and her predecessor Adrian Gonzalez — have left Palomar College. Their departures were mentioned outright by multiple college faculty members during the public comments segment of the meeting.
Evilsizer did not respond to the critiques during the meeting. But fellow board member Deerfield — who is also an area Democratic Party activist who worked as the lead 2018 mayoral electoral campaign advisor for Escondido Mayor Paul McNamara, a former trustee — said that she also found the comments “shocking.”
“Trustee Evilsizer’s comment isn’t true,” said Deerfield. “And when we start putting that out to the community, I find that shocking, absolutely shocking.”
The cost of living contract amendment given to Blake was no less contentious. Before the meeting began, Gonzalez sent a letter to the Governing Board requesting that the clause on Blake’s $292,000 per year salary be tabled until the aftermath of the FCMAT probe.
“In the past, the board has been accused of rubber-stamping essential items without critical analysis,” Gonzalez wrote in that letter provided to The Coast News. “Today we need you to lead by example and be transparent, showing us that you are taking the necessary steps for fiscal stewardship.”
Student trustee Linus Smith also asked why the amendment came in the midst of the college’s tough fiscal times. The college currently faces a $11.7 million deficit. He said that amounts to an over $9,000 raise for year its first year.
“I think it would be appropriate if we led by example in terms of taking cuts together, as opposed to taking cuts by departments and leadership not also doing the same,” said Smith. “I think that if leadership is going to ask that departments cut their finances, that they are at least willing to do so themselves.”
Evilsizer offered a sharp retort, saying that the cost of living adjustment — commonly referred to as COLA — is something all college employees receive.
“Every employee in the district receives COLA and … it would be very unfair to deny an employee COLA at minimum,” he said.
Tensions also arose throughout the meeting about the small room within which the board currently meets.
Recently monthly meetings have been particularly packed in the Student Services Center building room — which seats 92 people — because the Palomar Faculty Federation faculty labor union has organized its members to attend.
In turn, the meetings have featured standing-room-only-size crowds of about 100 to 150 people, with many attendees turned away due to fire code standards in the room. The meetings are not live streamed and there is currently no overflow room provided to attendees, as exists at San Diego Association of Governments and Escondido City Council meetings.
“Our mobilizations effort started as a contract campaign because we’re very close to finishing our contract … so that’s how it started,” said Teresa Laughlin, co-president of the Palomar Faculty Federation and an economics professor at the college. “But people are now here not only because of the contract, but out of concern for what’s going on in the college.”
The next regular Governing Board meeting — scheduled for Nov. 12 — could be just as tense still, with the results of the “vote of no confidence” poll approved by the Faculty Senate about Blake to be presented to the board.
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news outlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.