By EDDIE CELAYA
I have had the fortune (some would say misfortune) of covering the Pima Community College Board of Governors since my first day on staff in January 2016. I actually volunteered for the beat after an awkward silence elicited no “pick me” from anyone else.
After my first board meeting, I would have killed to go back and slap some sense into myself. It was boring. Everyone spoke in bureaucratic legalese. I felt like the foreign guy at the DMV. I was lost.
But I kept it up. After three meetings and a few stories, I started to figure out what was coming out of people’s mouths.
Board member Sylvia Lee helped me understand what was at stake in the fight for Senate Bill 1322, where an outside “watchdog” group was trying to make it even harder for Pima to access tax funds it has already raised.
Board chairman Mark Hanna guided me through PCC’s wondrous bureaucracy.
By the end of that first semester, I had a pretty good grasp on important issues facing the college: the accreditation battle, various lawsuits, etc.
Last November, I covered the District 5 election between incumbent Martha Durkin and challenger Luis Gonzales. In an upset, Gonzales defeated Durkin by a considerable margin.
I spoke to Durkin late on election night. She was shocked.
I spoke with Gonzales early the next morning. He wasn’t surprised. He also wasn’t elated. He just seemed nonchalant, matter-of-fact.
Fast forward to now. I understand enough about covering the board to know that unusual actions have transpired over the current semester. Suffice to say, the addition of Gonzales has made proceedings interesting.
Let me break down what is happening between Chancellor Lee Lambert, Gonzales and the rest of the board. This may be an over-generalization, but it’s important to understanding what is at stake.
During my first year of covering the board, members approved whatever Lambert requested. Almost every vote was unanimous, except for when Hanna voted “no” on the March 2016 tuition raise.
On the positive side, Lambert cleaned up problems that had long plagued the college.
The Higher Learning Commission lifted sanctions, which is a huge accomplishment. As I have noted before, Lambert deserves praise for his role in that milestone.
On the negative side, enrollment continues to decline. Efforts such as ad campaigns focused on new student outreach, lower tuition rates for nonresident students and passage of the aforementioned SB 1322 haven’t helped.
Faculty, who have largely gone without a raise for the last three years, are becoming restless. The college’s largest employee organization, PCCEA, bemoans the lack of cooperation in the meet and confer process.
As a final indignity, instructors are now dealing with a realignment scheme being implemented across departments.
Lambert’s agenda is still being affirmed, even with the addition of Gonzales. That affirmation, however, doesn’t come without comment and at times consternation from Gonzales.
A controversial board meeting in April brought salvos from each side.
The board, evidently without Gonzales’ knowledge, added a procedural item to the agenda that limited board members to no more than five minutes speaking time.
In turn, Gonzales surprised the board and chancellor by issuing a letter questioning whether the legal counsel the board receives is sufficient. He cited as evidence recent civil-rights cases for which both the college and chancellor were found liable.
Many look at this infighting as a sign of discord and upheaval. Perhaps it is. I see it as necessary, even enlightening. Before Gonzales, the board was in danger of becoming a rubber stamp for the chancellor. Worse, it seemed out of touch with the public.
While some of the recent dust-ups have drawn headlines, I’d argue that it’s for issues that need publicizing. Tuition for local students will now be above $80 a credit. Instructors are unhappy on multiple fronts. Enrollment keeps falling.
Those are legitimate stories, and they need a good public airing. A perception persists in the community that members of the board have not been looking at those stories, or that they preferred to focus attention on stories with happy endings.
Gonzales may be rough around the edges and may push too hard at times, especially when questioning college administrators tasked with presenting data to the board. But he undoubtedly cares about the college.
More specifically, he cares about the college’s relationship with the community, and how it’s perceived in that community. With all the focus on the out-of-town HLC, local community members want to be courted, too.
Lambert has proven he can run the bureaucracy. Gonzales is proving he can connect with the community.
News Editor Eddie Celaya will graduate on May 18. He has enjoyed his time at Pima, and wishes the governing board and chancellor the best of luck going forward.