Community college candidates debate

Among the many offices up for grabs in this coming November’s election are three seats (Areas 1, 2 and 5) for the board of trustees of the Ventura County Community College District. A candidate’s debate was held on Wednesday, October 17 at Pacifica High School in Oxnard for elections in Areas 1 and 5, which primarily represent the Ventura and Oxnard regions. It was sponsored by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), District 17, the Santa Paula Latino Town Hall, and the Laborer’s International Union of North America (LiUNA), Local 585.The Ventura County Community College District is divided into five different areas. Currently, the open Area 1 seat is held by attorney Stephen P. Blum. Its regions include San Buenaventura, Montalvo, Saticoy, Ojai Valley, City of Ojai, Upper Ojai Valley, Riverpark, Northwest Oxnard, North Coast and West Lockwood Valley.

The Area 2 seat is held by incumbent Dianne McKay, president of Mustang Marketing. Its regions include Thousand Oaks and Somis. McKay is being challenged this November by Craig Everett, a college professor at Pepperdine University. The Area 5 seat is held by incumbent Arturo D. Hernández. Its regions include Oxnard, Oxnard Shores, Mandalay Bay, Silver Strand, Hollywood Beach, Hollywood by the Sea, Channel Islands Harbor, El Rio, Nyeland Acres, Del Norte Area, Oxnard Plain, Strickland and a portion of Naval Base Ventura County in Port Hueneme.

Candidates on hand for the debate included: Area 1: - Arthur “A.J.” Valenzuela, Longshoreman at the Port of Hueneme - Jeanette Sanchez-Palacios, District Director for California State Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin (District 44) - Joshua Chancer - Faculty Member, California Lutheran University - Dina Pielaet - Business owner, Publisher, Entrepreneur Area 5: - Arturo Hernandez, a manager for the County of Ventura with the Human Services Agency - Gabriela Torres, A bilingual K-8 school counselor in the Oxnard Elementary School District The candidates were asked a series of questions by the panelist Manuel Muñoz, publisher of Vida Newspaper. The event moderator was radio personality and host David Cruz. The six candidates were also given a chance to make opening and closing statements. Valenzuela is a former Ventura College student who is “running for this position because I’m a strong advocate of free community college.”

Sanchez-Palacios stated her goals are “to give resources to those students who are the first in their family to go to college, to better align our curriculum with current industry needs, and to cooperate to remove bottlenecks that exist so we can improve student success and effectively build a better system.” Chancer wants to encourage expanded English as a Second Language courses, to address family separation, and to work to solve “a curriculum that does not reflect the students that we teach, a faculty that doesn’t represent the students that we teach.” Pielaet stated that her job is to ensure that students obtain marketable skills and credentials that lead to a sustainable career. Her goal is to “to bring quality of life through higher education to students of all ages and all walks of life.” Torres said that “without a shadow of a doubt, I know what is happening in our schools, what are the needs of our students, what are the challenges that they’re facing.” Hernandez reiterated that “my role on the board as a Latino is to represent issues throughout the community.”

The questions to the candidates encompassed a broad variety of issues, especially those related to minority representation, access to higher education, and resource development that would allow more students, especially Latinos, to be successful in their college studies. Sample questions from the panelists included: Q: Top three goals to accomplish over the next four years? For Hernandez, his top issues were access, i.e., “making sure that our students have access, not only transportation wide, but also in regard to getting assistance,” and completion, i.e., “once we get them in we need to get them to complete.” Hernandez raised the issue of Oxnard students going to Ventura instead of Oxnard College. “It’s an issue that needed to be addressed because other colleges were growing at a faster rate,” he said. “My job was to start to address that Oxnard has a comprehensive community college.” For Torres, her top issues are “closing the achievement gap, accountability, and fiscal transparency.” She is concerned about resources not being available. “I’m looking into that and finding out how are we spending our money?” she stated. Pielaet wants more inclusiveness, particularly for working students with families. “70% of our students are working adults,” she pointed out. “What we need to do is to create flexibility. We need to create a more flexible program for our working students who are working adults, for our working families.”

Chancer would like to see an improvement in a student’s overall college experience. “I work with kids every day, and they want a community college that’s theirs,” he said. “I’m looking for more student involvement, student enrollment, and student completion.” Sanchez-Palacios spoke about the Governor’s new formula for funding community colleges. Her primary concern was for “continuity among our three colleges, to ensure that we have classes that are being offered all at Ventura, Moorpark, and Oxnard Colleges.” Valenzuela is pushing for a return to free community college. He would also “like to improve the programs in place for students, student health courses for issues related to HIV prevention, sexual harassment prevention, and drug and alcohol abuse.” Q: Providing a community college center in the Santa Clara Valley? Valenzuela would like to see the current study “completed within the next couple of months and that there be a potential bond measure for the voters.” Sanchez-Palacios is currently trying to assist the group that is working out there “to connect with the State Community College’s Chancellor.” Chancer thinks that there are “a lot of things we can do by next semester to get more students engaged in the Santa Paula/Santa Clara area, to get them enrolled and supported.” Pielaet believes the area could be successful with a “a four-year medical arts college.” She referred to the Santa Clara Valley as “a medical caregiver’s gateway.” Torres supports the idea of a Santa Clara Valley center, but wants to know: “Is the community involved? Do we have structures? Do we have systems in place in order for our students to be successful?”

Hernandez reported that “this issue has been very much a part of board discussion for probably the last year.” He noted in the past that “there was money dedicated, there was land dedicated, and it just didn’t happen.” He emphasized, however that “I’m committed to making sure that we take care of it.” Q: How do we give students the proper support and resources in order to help them graduate? Hernandez referred to the implementation of the Promise Program. “It’s a real issue statewide,” he said. “It’s making sure that they have the support that they need.” Torres emphasized that “we need to make sure we have solid support systems in place. It’s making sure that we have everything in place for students to succeed.” Pielaet disclosed that “70% of students are working adults and a large percentage of our students have small children.” As a result, she stated that “we need to be more flexible, we need to create better, stronger programs at night, we need to meet their needs where they are.” Chancer said that “I can answer this question in one word, and that’s support.” He encouraged stronger communication between college and high school campuses. “For a number of our students, for teachers and faculty, there needs to be support.” Sanchez-Palacios said that the support depends on the audience who is being addressed. “I think we have such a diverse population at community colleges, from working parents to part-time students to full-time students. We need to rethink how we are treating our students and how we’re placing them when they enroll.”

Valenzuela was critical of current Latino graduation numbers. “In the past couple decades,” he said, “the number of Latino students graduating from community colleges has increased, but unfortunately, it’s only been the same rate that the Latino population has been running in the State of California. It seems like it’s an injustice to say that we’re successful in getting more minority students graduated when that’s not really the case.” Other questions from the panelists dealt with how to increase Latino male enrollments in community college, why Oxnard students seem to prefer Ventura College over Oxnard College, the future of tutor services and other student resources, especially for DACA students, why some academic are critical that community colleges are promoting the concept of teaching to the test and passing/ failing students, developing equity when guided pathways seek to eliminate many classes for underprivileged students, and hiring a transfer coordinator as part of the campus staff. How do we provide more student and faculty who represent the diversity of this community? Hernandez pointed to his own record for minority hiring.

Torres asked: “When we start talking about a student center, who is teaching our students and how are we raising the bar? We need to have diversity in our faculty and our administration.” Pielaet believes that “the problem is we need to make more Hispanic teachers. We need to really encourage educational opportunities for anybody who wants to get into the profession of teaching. We need to cast a wider net to attract more teachers in an equitable fashion.” Chancer stated that “I think the first step is making sure our college system honors diversity, which starts with students all the way up to president and chancellor.” Sanchez-Palacios thinks that local community colleges should provide incentives for staff, faculty, and current teachers at community colleges. “They leave because there are better paying opportunities elsewhere,” she said. Valenzuela observed that “this is really a systemic issue because there is a lack of diversity among graduate students at a university level. How many of those go on to get Ph.Ds.?” Chancer recommended that “one of the things that we’ve done when hiring principals is that we have committees that represent the community.”