By Beth Smith
There will be great speculation for many years as to why Dr. Ted Martinez, Jr., was fired as president of Grossmont College. Some will say that he was a scapegoat for the actions taken by the Grossmont Faculty against the district chancellor, Omero Suarez. Others will claim that Martinez was too outspoken. Others will say he was not outspoken enough. But one thing is for sure, Martinez is a strong advocate for Grossmont College always has been and probably always will be. He continued to choose championing for the students, programs and community that is Grossmont College, and unfortunately, this stance led to a conflict between him and Suarez. He did exactly what every college president is expected to do bring to the attention of the district administration and board the problems and inequities facing Grossmont College with the intent to resolve the issues as soon as possible. However, it appears that Suarez did not want him to do the job he was hired to do. The college community is eternally grateful to Martinez for doing his job and making the tough, but right choice, over and over again on our behalf.
This relationship became especially strained in early 2004. At that time, two important issues were negatively impacting the college, and Martinez was at the forefront of the discussion of how to resolve the issues. The first, a seemingly minor accounting error, identified district expenses that were being charged to the college. Since the district has a separate budget for such expenses, the charges were identified, tracked, and presented to the chancellor for reconciliation. The dollar amount varied between $200,000 to $300,000 per year, a sizeable amount that could have been redirected to hiring much needed faculty and staff. Suarez made no attempt to absorb the charges back into the district budget, offered no explanation for why the charges were there, and disgustingly, offered no apology to the college for years of “stealing” funds away from educational programs. To this day, the issue remains a sticking point as Suarez has conjured up fantasy expenses to charge to the college to continue the inequity.
The second issue is much more problematic because of the scope of the issue and the magnitude of funds involved. It is the allocation and spending of the capital construction bond revenue, locally known as Prop R, approximately $207 million dollars. East County voters passed the bond that was advertised as “R for repair,” citing the aging Grossmont campus and the need for some new construction within the district. When the district announced the split of the funds and the planned use for the dollars, the college community was outraged. Not only did the split emphasize new construction at the other campus in the district, but it nearly eliminated all repair funds from the budget for the college. Martinez again went to bat for the college requesting more of the split and a greater portion to repair the 40+ year old campus. All his requests were denied and the college has been suffering the results of the split since. Buildings identified as needing the most attention basically the college should demolish them are struggling to find dollars to complete basic renovations. Yet, the other campus in the district, Cuyamaca College, continues to build new buildings with its extraordinary share of the Prop R revenues. Appropriately sized buildings designed to support the programs at the college would be understandable, but the board decided to build mega-buildings at Cuyamaca at a time when credit enrollment is declining there. The lack of significant credit enrollment growth at Cuyamaca is another long standing problem between the colleges and probably contributed to the firing of Martinez.
The Grossmont Faculty challenged the processes used by the district to determine the Prop R split. The chancellor neglected the concerns of the faculty with regard to the two issues listed above, and more importantly, violated the faculty’s legal right to participate in the development of budget and planning processes. Additional inequities were discovered by the faculty leading to two forums in which the Suarez was invited to meet with the faculty to resolve the issues and inequities. Rather than address the concerns, the chancellor insulted the faculty by denying that any problems exist. The Academic Senate voted no confidence in Suarez in March 2005. Since that time, Suarez participated in election tampering in May of the faculty elections, repeatedly declined the faculty’s request for outside assistance and mediation, and continues to avoid solving problems in a collegial way. Community college leaders across the state recognize the inept leadership of Suarez and offer their sympathy to college faculty leaders who continue to pursue solutions in spite of his resistance.
The board response to the vote of no confidence in Suarez was predictable, but the vitriol was not. With comments like “Bring it on” and a patronizing “You’re not happy?” litany, the board supported Suarez, mocked the faculty concerns, and left Martinez in the middle. Martinez continued to support equity and respect for Grossmont College as the faculty and the district took sides. Martinez sincerely looked for solutions by accompanying the Academic Senate President to meetings with Suarez in the hope of seeking outside assistance. Suarez asked Martinez to take sides in the matter rather than attempt to resolve the issues: Martinez stressed problem solving while Suarez sought to gain power. Martinez was left in a pickle.
In June, the board voted to extend the contracts, out of the normal evaluation cycle, to the chancellor, vice chancellors, and president of Cuyamaca College. Not Martinez. Community members and college students, faculty and staff were shocked. At each of the next board meetings through the summer and into the fall, students, faculty, staff and community members spoke eloquently on behalf of Martinez and his contributions to the success of the college. Not once did the board acknowledge the comments of the speakers or the work of Martinez, but instead the board showed a disappointing display of irreverence and disrespect for the speakers and Martinez.
After other displays at subsequent board meetings of disdain directed toward Martinez and Grossmont College, the final straw was added to the camel’s back on December 23, 2005, two days before Christmas, and an official day of closure for the college. The board called a special closed meeting at 4:00 scheduled for that day. The agenda looked innocent enough, but the campus soon learned that the board would take action against Martinez. Education Code clearly states the processes and timelines for dealing with contracts of administrators, and the board “just recently learned” that it had to take action six months prior to the end of Martinez’ contract in June 2006. In a closed session, the board voted unanimously to terminate his contract and not renew it. The faculty attempted to attend the board meeting, but were not allowed into the meeting since it was identified as a closed meeting. The faculty together with community members held a rally in support of Martinez outside the district offices were the meeting took place. The incompetence of the board and chancellor were obvious as they fumbled with the timeline and impact of their special meeting. They made the decision not to renew the contract in June, but realized only the week before Christmas that they had to make a decision in December? Why did the chancellor not provide better guidance for the board? Will Martinez lead the college January through June? When will decisions be made? The chancellor and board president could not answer these basic questions.
On December 29 with the college scheduled to be officially closed on December 30 until January 3, Martinez received a letter from the chancellor saying that his services are no longer needed and he should not report to the college January 3. An interim president will be named, and the faculty will have to decide how to respond to the chancellor’s decision to remove the college’s proven leader. Community members are also trying to decide how to respond to the board and the chancellor’s contempt for the college and its leaders.
As an aside, if the president’s job is to protect educational programs, ensure their integrity, balance the budget, increase enrollment thereby serving more students, and maintain the validity of the degrees and transfer opportunities at the college, then Martinez was a success. On the other hand, the Cuyamaca College president has faced questions by this newspaper about the integrity of its noncredit program where Alzheimer’s patients are enrolled as students in college courses; operates a college that has been in the “red” for 27 years and the subsidy required to sustain the college increases each year; and credit enrollment there has been declining. Did the board fire the right president? If they agree that Cuyamaca’s president is doing the right job, then deficit spending must be the new way to fund education and using Alzheimer’s patients as students will become the norm. The legislature of the state will have to change some laws to accommodate the new standard for being a successful college president. Martinez meets the standards today, according to the laws that exist today.
Beth Smith is Academic Senate President. Grossmont College.