L.A. County has 13 community college districts, each with their own board of trustees. But only the Pasadena district is on the ballot for the June 7 primary election.
What does a community college board of trustees do?
Think of these groups as school boards that govern community colleges rather than local K-12 schools. Boards of trustees set the vision, mission and goals for their district, approve budgets, make sure schools are financially healthy, and monitor their performance. They also can hire (or fire) district chancellors and college presidents whose job it is to put the district’s mission and goals into practice. (Chancellors and presidents are essentially the CEOs of community college districts; they’re called chancellors when the district has more than one campus, and president when there’s only one.)
One of a trustee’s biggest responsibilities is making sure community members’ needs are reflected in districts’ priorities. For instance, if a trustee hears that prospective students are having trouble figuring out how to register for classes, they can bring that concern to the rest of the board and chancellor. The chancellor has to find ways to approach the issue — maybe by budgeting for more admissions staff, prioritizing a more user-friendly website, or emphasizing community outreach — and then the board signs off and keeps tabs on whether things improve.
Even if you don’t attend or work at a community college, there are plenty of reasons to care about what these boards do. First of all, their work extends to much more than academics. They oversee district budgets, which go toward all kinds of projects beyond academics — think new buildings, land development, and construction, all of which affect the surrounding community. Community colleges often offer events and other opportunities that are open to the public, as well.
Community colleges are also essential when it comes to educational access, equity, and upward mobility for Californians. These schools offer some of the most affordable (and often free) higher education classes available, with flexible schedules and a wide range of programs, from liberal arts to trades to English as a Second Language. This means they can serve more students who are older, low-income, English-language learners, or are juggling jobs or caregiving responsibilities. And they provide a pool of talented employees to fill the needs of the local workforce.
L.A. County has 13 community college districts, with 21 colleges among them. Some, like the Pasadena Area Community College District, consist of just one college. Others have more, like the nine-campus L.A. Community College District. LACCD is actually the largest in the county — and the nation — by budget, student enrollment, and geographic area served.
Each community college board member is elected to a four-year term, with elections staggered and held every two years. Odd-numbered seats will usually all go up for election one year, and then even-numbered seats will be elected two years later. Seats are also at-large, meaning that everybody who lives in a given community college district will vote for all seats up for election, rather than just voting for one that represents a specific geographic area.
You may recognize their work from…
One of the most consequential decisions boards had to make in recent years was how to help students continue to pursue their education while also keeping staff, students, and faculty healthy from the COVID-19 pandemic. Decisions to shut down campuses for remote-only learning, buy and distribute laptops for students, and implement vaccine mandates for in-person instruction — policies adopted at community colleges all across the state — all required approval from local district boards.
What’s on the agenda for the next term?
Enrollment at community colleges across the state has plummeted since the COVID-19 pandemic began. That’s a worrying sign not just for college funding and the amount of programs that may be available to future students, but also for local economies, which might see too few workers who are qualified to do the jobs available. District boards will need to find ways to bring enrollment numbers back up and make sure schools stay financially afloat.
Where do they go from here?
Some community college district boards are unexpectedly popular springboards to higher office. Among those who started their political career as trustees: Gov. Jerry Brown. He was elected governor of California just five years after his term as a trustee ended. More recent examples include Mike Fong and Sydney Kamlager, both LACCD board members who were later elected to the state legislature.
If you’re unsure what to consider as you decide who to vote for, here are some qualities that experts say are important for this role.
- Campaign finance. You can look up campaign contributions for anyone running for a board of trustees seat. If the vast majority of their funds comes from the same interest group, that can be a red flag, said Dr. Larry Galizio, president and CEO of the Community College League of California. “If there's a board member who's only interested in his or her constituents, and only a particular interest, they're likely to not work in the best interest of the college and the district and the community as a whole,” he said.
- Ability to work in a team. Having a good working relationship with other board members and the chancellor or superintendent-president of the district is critical to doing the job effectively. Members may disagree on issues, but they ultimately have to be able to work together in order to accomplish anything.
- Understanding of the community. Communicating the concerns of a community back to the board is a big part of a trustee’s job. It helps to look through their background to gauge how well they understand their local community, and whether they’d be an effective liaison.
- Big-picture thinking. “You don’t want a micromanager,” Galizio said. A trustee is not in charge of day-to-day operations, and they’re not supposed to get into the nitty gritty of how programs are run. Instead, they have to stay focused on the larger questions of how policies fit in with the district’s vision, mission, and overall sustainability.
- A well-rounded board. Trustees need to use a lot of different skills in their job: financial savvy, an understanding of educational policy, community relationships, knowledge of legal, real estate and health care landscapes. It’s tough to find one person who has it all, but you can assemble a board that can bring some of these different skills together — and some of the best boards have members from a whole variety of professional backgrounds and interests, Galizio said.
- Community College Boards Lose Power, Stature As System Changes (Reveal): This 2013 article delves into how community college district boards have lost local power over time and details some of boards’ distinct powers.
- Community College League of California - Resources: The Community College League of California is a nonprofit organization that supports board trustees, school chancellors and presidents. They have a wealth of data and information about trustees and college districts across the state, including budget and enrollment trends, trustee demographics, details on how board members’ roles differ from those of school CEOs, and more.
Who we spoke to for this piece
- Larry Galizio, President and CEO, Community College League of California
- Fernando Guerra, Professor of Political Science and Chicana/o Studies, Loyola Marymount University
- Tatiana Melguizo, Professor of Education, USC Rossier School of Education
Pasadena Area Community College District
If any one candidate receives more than 50% of the vote in the June primary, they will win the office outright. Otherwise, the two candidates who receive the most votes will advance to the November runoff.
Trustee Area 3
Steve Gibson, Educator/Community Advocate
Campaign website: stevegibson4pcc.com
Endorsements: See full list of endorsements
More resources: Read more about Gibson’s policy priorities and experience on Voter’s Edge
Berlinda Brown, Incumbent
Campaign website: none found
More resources: Brown's bio on the Pasadena City College website
Trustee Area 5
Trustee Area 7
Alton Wang, Community Nonprofit Advocate
Campaign website: alton.wang/
Endorsements: See a full list of endorsements
More resources: Read more about Wang’s policy priorities and experience on Voter’s Edge
Anthony R. Fellow, Trustee, Pasadena City College Board of Trustees
Campaign website: none found
Endorsements: See a list of featured endorsements on Voter’s Edge
- Read more about Fellow’s policy priorities and experience on Voter’s Edge
- Fellow's bio on the Pasadena City College website