The Issue of Admission

In the midst of controversy, Pima Community College's governing board has two seats up for election

Five people are running for two Pima Community College governing board seats, including the two incumbents—but only three of the five were willing to talk to the Tucson Weekly about their campaigns and the issues the college faces.

Marty Cortez, who has served for three six-year terms, said she wants to return to complete the controversial admissions-policy changes the board and former Chancellor Roy Flores have promoted.

Cortez faces two challengers for the District 5 seat: retired Pima professor Richard Fridena, and Pima instructor Francis Saitta.

Saitta responded to our email request by saying that he did not do sit-down interviews and would only answer questions provided to all of the candidates through email. We explained that the Weekly's policy is not to do email interviews. His response: "An interview, under those circumstances, is inherently unfair, and, as a comparative of candidate positions, uninformative. All candidates should be asked the same question. Otherwise one introduces tendentiousness into the interview process."

The second incumbent up for re-election is Sherryn "Vikki" Marshall, in District 3. She is a re-employment counselor with Pima County's Community Services Department who wants a third term. She is challenged by retired Pima dean Sylvia Lee.

We called Marshall to schedule an interview; she asked us to email our request, because she was at work. We did, and she responded with a series of questions about the interview. We replied, but she never responded to that or to a second email request.

Fridena told us some of the college's problems began surfacing when it announced plans to end the longstanding open-enrollment policy. Staffers also came forward with sexual harassment allegations against Flores, and claimed he created a hostile work environment. There were also procurement issues and accusations that the board violated open-meeting procedures.

These problems, Fridena said, have to do with current board members, like Cortez, who are complacent and unwilling to ask questions.

Fridena started working at the community college in 1977 as an adjunct professor before being hired full time in 1981. It's that history, he said, that helps him understand the mission of community colleges.

"I always found the social mission of a community college inspiring. It is one of the most-inspiring things in our country—helping people find a way into higher education and improve their life."

It was the college's announcement in March 2011 that it intended to change its open-admissions policy, and instead require that all prospective students take an entrance exam, that got Fridena and Lee into the race.

"A group of us, mostly retired, felt it just seemed to be headed in the wrong direction and antithetical to what community colleges are about," Fridena said.

The board's explanation for the new policy changed from forum to forum, Fridena said, adding that he thinks part of the problem is that the members of the all-volunteer governing board "don't have the time to look at everything as closely as they need to."

"You hire someone highly skilled and knowledgeable about community college, and say, 'We want you to run this place.' ... You become vested in this person's expertise and their knowledge to run the place, so you stop watching," he said.

He said board members admitted at a later forum that they had already approved the chancellor's admissions-policy change. "So what they passed at the forum was really just an endorsement of the decision they had already made that we didn't know about," he said.

Cortez, a retired teacher and principal, said it's time to look at the positive things the college has done, and can do. For example, at a recent candidates' forum, incumbents and challengers agreed that the college needs to adopt a plan to allow undocumented students who reside in Pima County to attend the college and pay in-state tuition. However, the college has yet to adopt a plan.

"I've been somewhat dismayed, but I understand newspapers are what they are," Cortez said. "The focus seems to be on the negative things that have happened at the college, although those issues have been addressed."

As issues surrounding Flores' administration surfaced, so did criticism of the contract under which the board first hired him. Flores' original contract automatically added another year after every positive review, making it complicated and pricey to ever let him go.

Cortez said she would hire a new chancellor in the same manner.

"The purpose of that, first of all, is to attract good candidates," she said.

Cortez also dismisses criticism that the board has violated open-meetings laws and doesn't discuss the issues enough during board meetings. "We do a lot of the work to get our questions dealt with prior to the meetings. ... Maybe it's unfortunate that is the appearance, and maybe we need to consider being more verbal about some of the things we've discussed," she said.

Regarding the procurement, sexual harassment and hostile-work allegations against the now-retired Flores, Cortez said she can't comment on legal issues, but that she doesn't think an outside audit—which some have called for—is needed.

"It's unfortunate that these things came up. How much is truth and how much isn't, I don't think any of us will ever know as far as the chancellor's personal conduct," she said.

At each forum Cortez has attended, she has brought with her a long list of what she calls the positive that's happened at the college. Highlights include the college's expansion of student services, so students could complete coursework in the evening, and a savings of $52 million. "There has been more good than bad," she said.

Lee, with a 30-year career in education, shares much of the same concerns as Fridena. On a local radio show, Lee said that the college could do a lot of good if it was more transparent about the past problems.

"In order to be totally transparent, an audit has to be external, not internal, like it is doing now," Lee said.

An audit, she said, needs to focus on finance, procurement and human resources. On procurement, Flores and the board were chided for allowing the chancellor to contract with a friend to do staff development, and for possible conflicts of interests regarding work provided by former Pima County Supervisor Dan Eckstrom. (See "Questionable Hires," April 19.)

Speaking of the women who came forward with sexual-harassment allegations involving Flores, Lee said it is a shame that the college still hasn't acknowledged there was wrongdoing, and that there was "no real investigation."

However, open enrollment remains the biggest issue to the candidate. "That's why this community went sky-high over this issue, and that's why Richard (Fridena) and I are here today."

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