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On February 5, The Sun, Southwestern College’s newspaper, reported that the school had been “slapped with a warning by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC).”

Nicholas Alioto

Nicholas Alioto

In 2010 Southwestern Community College was in crisis. Faculty and staff had lost confidence in then-president Raj Chopra and Nicholas Alioto, vice president of business affairs. Both were indicted as a result of a pay-to play investigation. The 2010 campus was rife with suspicion; Alioto had even signed a contract with the public relations firm Focuscom and tasked them to isolate and expose extremists.

Looming larger than the scandals was the serious threat the college would lose its accreditation from Western Association of Schools and Colleges. In 2010 the school was placed on academic probation, but in 2011, with new leadership, the college was accredited again.

Southwestern College superintendent Melinda Nish

Southwestern College superintendent Melinda Nish

Now the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, a branch of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, has issued a warning to the college. According to the letter sent February 5 to Southwestern’s superintendent/president, Melinda Nish, “the warning indicates that an institution does not meet one or more standards and reaffirmation [of accreditation] is not warranted.”  

The college has until March of 2017 to correct the “deficiencies,” but it is the particulars of the 73-page report that are concerning.  

For example, the section that evaluates the college on fiscal health concludes:

“There is at the college a sense of mistrust for the finance office and also possibly for upper level management in terms of the budget and financial planning. The finance office appears to have reduced its planning to a short-term view [only a one year budget] and this may be jeopardizing the financial integrity of the college and the ability to maintain sound business practices. The lack of long term or integrated short term planning and the lack of having a multi-year projected budget make it difficult for the college to operate in an environment of trust with constituency groups and the campus community.”

As a supporting detail of the above assertion, the report states, “There is no evidence that information about the $6 million structural deficit was shared with constituency groups or the budget committee during the spring 2015 budget process.”

Though the budget posed the gravest concern, there were observations in the report that pertain to students. For example, the college has a YELP page, but the report states there were no responses by the institution addressing any of the issues noted by students. 

The report also stated that student services such as financial aid “are woefully understaffed and this understaffing contributes to delayed processing of awards, distribution of aid, and information regarding the financial process in a timely manner.”

The commission laced the report with examples of things done right at Southwestern and gave special commendations to the students, the Academic Support Service, the library faculty and staff, and others.

When Nish was contacted February 9 for comment about the commission’s budget assertions she stated, “I do not think that is an accurate statement of the college at the time of the visit or now. I do think this was the case following the pay-for-play issues associated with former executive administrators.

“We have been doing multi-year budgeting for several years. Our adopted budget is for only one year (which is the norm) but we run simulations each year for three to five years out. We have been sharing these with our Planning and Budget Committee and our Governing Board.”


Nish also noted that the college has already held two forums to discuss the Accrediting Commission’s report and asked that the Reader note that some of the commission’s recommendations have already been “pulled back and the commission has decided that these (8-12) are NOT deficiencies, but only areas for continued improvement.” 

Nish is one of five finalists for the position of chancellor of the North Orange County Community College District. 

When asked if becoming chancellor would have any effect on the college's attempt to solidify accreditation, Nish replied, “No, I do not think it will have a negative effect. No one person is irreplaceable in our organization. We are a team and we work to build, reinforce and improve the foundations we stand upon so that the next person that is in our position has the benefit of our good work.”

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Comments

cvret Feb. 9, 2016 @ 8:10 p.m.

they are spending a lot of money on that campus for sports activities

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Sjtorres Feb. 9, 2016 @ 11:29 p.m.

It's a well known fact that the current board of directors at SWC are there for one reason: to give the teachers union everything it asks for. This current board is crooked and corrupt (putting campaign donors on oversight committees etc).

Of course they will be quick to toss the brand new superintendent under the bus in order to keep the facade alive. In fact, don't be surprised if this episode is fomented by the union not being happy with Nish. And the author of this article (a union mouthpiece) trying to hurry things along in Nish's departure.

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AlexClarke Feb. 10, 2016 @ 5:20 p.m.

Your ignorance about unions and how they operate is without bounds. There is nothing in the article about unions or their members. Your hate for unions is hate for workers. The corrupt history of SCC has everything to do with corrupt administrators/board members and pay-to-play contractors but the facts will never get in your way when it comes to pontificating about something you know nothing about.

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bbq Feb. 10, 2016 @ 6:13 a.m.

cvret, As a parent and community member, I ask you to please reconsider what you are saying about SWCC athletics, while it may seem to be spending a lot of money on athletics, the programs at all of the community colleges give student/athletes a chance after high school to compete and succeed.
My son who was a sports writer for the SWCC Sun newspaper wrote many stories about SWCC Athletes competing for two years at SWCC and then receiving opportunities to play D1, D2 and NAIA collegiate sports and receive their education. Also about the coaches and educators that motivated, built self-esteem and prepared young adults for successful lives. Our community colleges are an integral part of our education system, especially now that our High Schools are not preparing our students with the practical "lifeskills" taught and learned by us "older americans".
All of us should be aware and active in the Education of our youth and Education system. BBQ

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Visduh Feb. 10, 2016 @ 7:41 a.m.

Susan, so good to have you back and reporting on So County education. After the corruption court cases were completed, it would have been easy simply to assume that all would be well in those districts. This points out that all isn't well at SWC. At the time that the questionable board hired Nish, she didn't look like a particularly strong candidate in light of the need for a cleanup. Her initial steps didn't suggest anything like reform. It is hardly a radical notion to expect some longer-term financial planning.

Now that Nish is headed for the exit, who's in line to replace her? Will the hapless district head out of state and pick up someone like Chopra who talks a good story but utterly flops? If you take a look at Nish's record, she came to So County from Orange County, and likely will be back there soon. Instead of coming to SWC with a long term view of making things there right, she was using it as a career stepping stone. Can we say "carpet bagger", boys and girls?

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Susan Luzzaro Feb. 10, 2016 @ 10:25 a.m.

Thank you Visduh, There is still much to report here in the South Bay--as you know. Many of the school districts were bogged down in corruption for years, and some districts held a monopoly of power too long, so the going is slow.

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Susan Luzzaro Feb. 10, 2016 @ 10:29 a.m.

BBQ, That's great that your son was a writer for The Sun. That paper, those writers, bring home awards year after year. The archives of the paper are also a valuable source for the community. And as it says above, they were the first to break this story.

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bbq Feb. 10, 2016 @ 12:13 p.m.

Thanks, my son was one of the award winners, he has moved on and is attending Ball State University in Indiana completing a journalism degree. He's an excellent sports writer.... I would be the first to say I underestimated what our community college system does for our area and students. We should be proud of the systems but ever watchful of the management and boards. BBQ

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eastlaker Feb. 10, 2016 @ 2 p.m.

I had hoped that Southwestern CC was "in the clear" after the Chopra era was over.

Anyone can see that there are building projects going on...in the past few years there have been improvements in the access roads to the school, the football facilities have been improved, and I have heard that pool facilities are supposed to be improved.

Let's hope that some people with good problem-solving skills are looking at things and figuring them out.

As BBQ has noted, SWC really does assist this community--because there are many people who 'hit their stride' a bit later than high school, there are those who are interested in a second career, and there are those who might be able to explore various interests in the arts because of availability of programs at SWC.

This community college is vital--it welcomes all who are interested in learning.

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oskidoll Feb. 10, 2016 @ 3:54 p.m.

I certainly agree with Eastlaker! It is disappointing to learn of the ‘warning’ status by the Accrediting Commission. The following may be helpful: 1. “Warning” is the least severe sanction, not nearly the severity of “Probation” after the corruption scandal. It is still troubling. I think it reflects administrative systemic shortcomings rather than governance and leadership corruption that plagued the college in the past. 2. After the new board was elected, there was house cleaning and new administrators appointed. Interim president Denise Whittaker led the college team to restore full accreditation. 3. When president Nish came aboard, she had never been a college president, let alone a superintendent of a single college district. I doubt that she had (or has now) the administrative/management experience necessary to bring SWC into compliance with new and ever-evolving operational and technical expectations. 4. Reading the ‘recommendations’ of the Accrediting Commission, it seems the shortcomings are in fiscal planning, overall college planning, and other management practices. I don’t believe any of the recent presidents have been especially strong in any of these areas which require day-to-day organizational commitment and attention. 5. While I think the college has come a long way from the corrupt administration of Chopra, Alioto, Wilson, and the board that permitted and participated in it, it looks like there is quite a way to go to achieve ‘best practice’ management status. There is new fiscal leadership aboard in the last month and I trust Tim Flood will be a breath of fresh air and competence in that arena. He has a great and well-deserved reputation. 6. I think Nish is not necessarily a strong contender for the North Orange County Chancellor position and I would be surprised if she is selected.
7. The challenges the Commission’s evaluation put before SWC will mean yet another culture shift. It will be a stiff learning curve but one that is more technical in nature, instead of one that is personality-governance driven. 8. Finally, be reminded that NONE of the recommendations have anything to do with teaching and learning, which remarkably manage to continue on a high level through thick and thin. I believe that the SWC faculty are as committed to their students as any teacher could be. I also believe that the support staff are likewise committed although they may be understaffed and in need of some customer service training and encouragement. (For years, the college has relied on student workers and/or lowest-paid clerks to staff the front line counters and interact with students.)

Let’s wish Southwestern College the best as everyone puts their shoulder to the wheel to meet the expectations and challenges now before the college community. Let’s also show our appreciation for this valued community resource that continues to serve the higher education needs of our region.

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Susan Luzzaro Feb. 10, 2016 @ 5:37 p.m.

oskidoll, well read, well said. The report is cumbersome, (in the blue ink above or on the SWC website) but is worth reading. As BBQ says, we should be ever watchful. The South Bay has had hard lessons in the past; it's not just a snap of the fingers, fix fix.

We all want this institute to thrive, great students, teachers, staff, and it brings so many benefits to our community.

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AlexClarke Feb. 11, 2016 @ 5:59 a.m.

"The South Bay has had hard lessons in the past" but it seems that nothing is ever learned from these hard lessons.

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oskidoll Feb. 11, 2016 @ 11:27 a.m.

AlexClarke: They were different lessons (see my post above) which focused on failures of governance and corruption of public institutions. I believe those lessons were well learned, and now things are very much improved. These NEW issues involve different matters of administrative and largely technical managerial systems that need improvement or to be put in place...it is a matter of how the institution FUNCTIONS instead of how it the institution is GOVERNED.

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eruption Feb. 11, 2016 @ 2:13 p.m.

So disappointing to hear. I also was hopeful that after all the past problems that SWC was on the fast track to a full recovery. It's worrisome that an accrediting issue has raised it's ugly head again. SWC is too important to this community to have accrediting issues again! Hopefully the board is working together to resolve these issues. Division doesn't work.

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anniej Feb. 12, 2016 @ 8:24 a.m.

With all due respect to Ms. Nish - what you think is irrelevant, ACCJC is doing the accrediting!

Perhaps, IF LESS time was spent playing politics and MORE time on the business the leadership is charged with (EDUCATION) maybe, just maybe we could see this Educational Facility return to the days of greatness when assisting students to become all they could be resonated from the top down!

It is becoming daunting when we, as taxpayers, continue to see that those we voted in to change things have done little - time for change again? Hey as Grandmother use to say 'keep on trying till you get it right'.

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Wabbitsd Feb. 12, 2016 @ 4:54 p.m.

The tenures of these leaders at our local community colleges is interesting to track. They traditionally come from somewhere else, stay a few years, then move on, taking their retirement.

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eastlaker Feb. 12, 2016 @ 9:47 p.m.

It might be worth remembering that San Francisco City College was raked over the coals by the ACCJC and many felt some of the findings were arbitrary and capricious. I didn't follow that closely, but have heard that things are better now--but that some people think that the ACCJC needs to look inward in several places and make some corrections with their own procedures.

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oskidoll Feb. 13, 2016 @ 12:57 p.m.

While there may have been procedural irregularities during AACJC's review of San Francisco CC, I believe that the results were essentially fair. We should expect that all colleges are reviewed by and held to the same standards. In this case, SFCC balked at the expectations that they toe the lines established by ACCJC. Accreditation is largely about accountability, which is required by the US Dept of Ed in return for providing federal money and federal financial aid for the students. The accreditation process has become much more stringent in recent years because, in my opinion, California fell way behind the rest of the nation in establishing measures of institutional effectiveness (commonly known as Student Learning Outcomes) required by the USDOE and implemented during Dr. Beno's leadership of the ACCJC. Statewide faculty leadership balked at the notion of being held accountable for student learning and that battle is not yet over, although the ACCJC accreditors have the big stick. Or HAD the big stick until the California Community Colleges Board of Governors caved to political and faculty pressure and recently voted to seek another accrediting agency and pretty much give SFCC a pass, largely agreeing that it was 'too big and/or too important to fail' and blaming the commission for a too heavy hand. The SFCC matter is still pending and for the time being, ACCJC is still in charge of the matter.

However, in my opinion, the expectations of the accrediting process are stringent but fair; I believe that faculty have some level of responsibility for their students' learning and that the taxpaying community deserves a rigorous application of education and management expectations in the periodic evaluations. As an aside, I do not think that the Southwestern faculty were among the strident groups that lobbied against the learning outcomes measures. The current SWC issues are not about teaching and learning as much as they are about the institution's failure to meet operational and systemic management requirements.

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eastlaker Feb. 16, 2016 @ 6:25 a.m.

Fair enough!

I do wish that some of the energy and effort that the AACJC demonstrates could be transferred to the San Diego County Board of Education, as that is the most lackluster, hopeless bunch of sitting bureaucrats who do absolutely as little as they can possibly do (and still hold a job) as I have ever seen. Not to mention all the conflict of interest schemes that are allowed to continue. What board inspects them?

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oskidoll Feb. 16, 2016 @ 11:31 a.m.

Amen! The CBOE is apparently without supervision or evaluation, free to look the other way when districts in their jurisdiction (for whom their own website says they have oversight) go astray. The are also apparently free to ignore (as they did during the Sweetwater corruption mess) pleas for assistance from citizens in those very jurisdictions who seek remediation of fiscal irregularities (for which the CBOE is SPECIFICALLY charged with oversight) that occur in those very school districts. A bunch of pathetic and do-less elected officials with grossly overpaid bureaucrat employees. Appeals to the State Superintendent of Education (another ineffective and do-less hack, Tom Torlakson, also go unanswered.

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eastlaker Feb. 16, 2016 @ 11:44 a.m.

Although some might consider what I have to say almost paranoid, I have to wonder if at some level the word went out to all sorts of politicians that it was open season on public education, no holds barred.

That's about the only explanation I can come up with for the extreme degree of non-attention to the very issues the County Board of Education is supposed to guide, support and lead.

Something along the lines of a Citizen's Group for the Enforcement of Sound Decision-Making might be called in to play--it couldn't hurt.

Task force, anyone?

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Visduh Feb. 17, 2016 @ 8:57 p.m.

,Almost paranoid, eastlaker? Absolutely paranoid, but just because you're paranoid doesn't mean you're wrong. You comment is almost like something I'd have written, but did not.

The charter school movement has exploited a huge back door to tax funds, and charter schools too often are rackets, not schools. Any time they get into home schooling, which I call "home non-schooling", my alarm bells go off.

Each school district is supposed to be accountable for its use of public funds, as it each charter school. But the charter schools get scant, if any, scrutiny from the districts that issue the charters. The individual school districts are supposed to be closely scrutinized by the county boards, yet in this county when one of the worst school scandals in state history was "going down", that county board stood on the sidelines, claiming that it had no authority to act. It took a judicial order to oblige its members to do their duty and fill vacant board seats in the Sweetwater UHSD.

eastlaker, a citizen's group has to be appointed by some political jurisdiction, and none have shown any desire to act. What is needed is a citizens action committee, vigilantes if you will, who act to clean up the corruption and venality. In today's world, that would never work due to it being extralegal, and far too scary for many citizen-enablers to accept.

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eastlaker Feb. 18, 2016 @ 6:22 a.m.

It is a crazy world when those who are in the position to oversee and guide do not act, but sit in place, mouthing platitudes, trying to placate and smile away the crumbling disaster they have helped to create.

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oskidoll Feb. 17, 2016 @ 12:27 p.m.

Here's an update: the North Orange County Community College District's website announces the appointment of Dr. Cheryl Marshall as the new district chancellor. Seems Dr. Nish will be staying at Southwestern College for awhile.

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johndewey Feb. 17, 2016 @ 3:17 p.m.

When does Dr. Nish's contract expire?

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oskidoll Feb. 17, 2016 @ 3:40 p.m.

According to a Southwestern College SUN (student news) web story posted October 12, 2015, the Governing Board voted to extend her contract to June 30, 2018. She was first hired January 2, 2012. State law specifies that such contracts are limited to a maximum of four years.

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Visduh Feb. 18, 2016 @ 10:43 a.m.

I assume that means that her contract was extended well prior to the time the original contract would have expired. Just another example of a board that feared the loss of a superintendent. But is she that capable and is she providing the leadership that campus needs?

But then, a few months after getting the extension, she was seeking a different position. So, giving her the added years didn't keep her eye off the exit door. Maybe these boards are just trying too hard.

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oskidoll Feb. 19, 2016 @ 10:43 a.m.

Visduh - It is not an unusual practice for community college boards to extend the contracts of the sitting CEOs as far into the future as the 4-year limit will allow. The practice is usually at the behest of the CEO because it gives the CEO an acknowledgment of board confidence and provides the greatest economic advantage for a pay out should the board decide to buy out the remainder of a contract should the relationship sour (new board members not in the CEO's camp are elected, for example).

Meanwhile, the CEO is free to seek another position should one open up that would provide a career advancement opportunity (such as the chancellor's job at North Orange County District). In such a case, the CEO would resign to take the new position without penalty but would not receive a severance pay out. In California community college land, the CEO jobs have a pecking order of prestige: lowest on the totem pole is CEO at a college in a multi-college district; next highest is a CEO (superintendent and president) at a single college district such as Southwestern College; and the highest is a chancellorship (CEO) at a multi-college district such as San Diego CC District, North Orange County CC District, etc. Chancellors are also usually paid the highest salaries.

The American Association of Community Colleges has predicted that there is to be a wave of retirements among CEOs (it may already be in progress) as the sitting CEOs age, so it will not be unusual to see musical chairs among the CEOs and high-ranking community college administrators in the near future.

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Visduh Feb. 19, 2016 @ 11:02 a.m.

Oh, I fully agree with your appraisal of the current situation. But what if those boards just refused to keep pushing administrator contracts out to the maximum term allowed by law? When the boards stop playing the career-climber game with their administrators, those administrators will have to accept the positions as offered. Or, that is, seek a different line of work, It bothers me that while the district boards tie their hands in granting those lengthy contracts, the contracts don't in any way bind the employee to the district. While, due to the Thirteenth Amendment, no employment contract can demand continued service, contracts could have financial penalties for early departure. But when have we ever heard one of those in the public sector?

The bigger issue here is whether Nish is actually doing the sort of job that SWCC needs done. The foregoing comments really haven't dealt with that question.

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oskidoll Feb. 19, 2016 @ 12:34 p.m.

I quite agree with you Visduh. However, I think the boards are on the losing end of a supply/demand situation with regard to talented CEOs because there are so many current and anticipated vacancies in the system. Therefore they tend to sweeten contracts of the CEOs hoping to keep them happy and in place. I do believe that sometimes fresh leadership is not necessarily bad, but I also recall that SWC had a revolving door in the president's office for several years, due to exceptionally poor selections, and believe the current board seeks stability at the top.

With regard to Nish, I have previously suggested that she was 'light' on CEO administrative experience when she was appointed to the SWC superintendent/president position...recall she came as a prior VP in a multi-college district and had never served as a president of a college in a multi-college district let alone a single college district such as SWC. While she may have served as the accreditation liaison officer in her prior situation, the current warning from ACCJC tells me that she has more to learn about ACCJC standards and expectations, and how best to lead the college community to compliance.

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