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Injecting partisan politics in non-partisan offices

If you haven’t read Jill Derby’s opinion piece published yesterday on Inside Higher Ed, please consider doing so. In it, Derby reflects on the dangers of introducing partisan politics into the governing boards of higher education institutions. She comes at it from the perspective of academic freedom, but there’s other stuff at stake, too. Trustees, regents and board members of higher education institutions have a fiduciary role in governance. Their primary purpose is to watch the money and the administrators who spend it.

Governance and oversight in public institutions is essential to provide “checks and balances” that protect the public investment at stake. WCC, for example has a $110M budget, half of which comes from the taxpayers of Washtenaw County. To some extent, the State of Michigan, depends on the WCC Board of Trustees to oversee the money it gives to the College. The State does have other oversight mechanisms; the Washtenaw County taxpayers do not. When the Trustees fail to provide actual oversight, there are no other backstops to prevent waste, fraud and abuse.

Transforming financial responsibility into partisan politics

The composition of the Board of Trustees is important, and it deserves a critical review. Virtually registered voter who lives in the community college district can run for an open seat on the Board of Trustees. To get a spot on the ballot, one must file the appropriate forms to establish a candidate committee and pay a filing fee of $100. That’s it.

Trustees are subject to certain campaign finance rules and regulations. At the community college level, campaign finance regulations are enforced by the county clerk. The regulations require periodic reporting of campaign finance information. This includes campaign administration, donations, expenses and related information.

Candidates can seek a waiver of certain filing requirements if they believe that their campaigns will not receive a significant amount of money from donors. Most WCC Trustees have sought a reporting waiver, which means that WCC Board candidates don’t anticipate either receiving or spending much on their campaigns.

Here are the most recent filings for each active WCC Trustee
Angela Davis
David DeVarti
Christina Fleming
Ruth Hatcher
Richard Landau
Dianna McKnight-Morton
William Milliken, Jr.

Two of the current WCC Trustees stand out in terms of their campaign funds and their expenses. According to their campaign finance filings, Richard Landau and William Milliken, Jr., have both exceeded $10,000 in both donations and expenses in pursuit of their spots on the Board.

This is unusual because the other five Trustees have received and spent virtually nothing on getting elected. Why would someone spend $10,000-$15,000 on a Board of Trustees campaign when five other seats with identical authority cost their officeholders next to nothing? Why spend money unnecessarily?

Know who (and what) you’re voting for

The donor lists are interesting as well. Milliken’s campaign received significant support from the local real estate lobby. Milliken is a commercial real estate broker, so you may not think that receiving donations from his real estate pals is unusual. Unfortunately, following Milliken’s election, the WCC Board of Trustees suddenly developed a burning interest in commercializing WCC’s ample real estate holdings.

The WCC Trustees’ newly discovered commercial real estate aspirations include building a convention center on campus. The idea of building a convention center in Ann Arbor has been debated for decades to no result. Clearly, Ann Arbor doesn’t want one, so it is never going to happen there. Projects like convention centers are major gambles, and generally, they have poor track records when it comes to return-on-investment.

But what if – instead of the City of Ann Arbor building one – WCC built it instead? Voters in Washtenaw County blindly throw money at WCC whenever the Board asks for it. WCC could take the risk of loss on its construction and operation. Better still, WCC has taxing authority, so it could issue construction bonds and apply a steady revenue stream to pay off the project.

But WCC is out in the middle of a commercial desert. So, what if the Board “decorated” the campus with a hotel and retail space that would give convention-goers something else to do? This may be great (or not) for the commercial real estate brokers, but it is decidedly not great for either WCC or Washtenaw County. This scheme is so far removed from WCC’s actual mission of educating people that if carried out, it would literally represent a complete breakdown of the Board’s fiduciary responsibilities.

And yet, there it is in WCC’s Master Plan, designated as a high priority.

Keep partisan politics out of WCC

WCC has a huge annual budget. No one would notice a few million each year being spent on “other things.” Clearly, some people think that a convention center is a better community investment than educating low-income and middle-class students. They don’t care that the plan will saddle WCC with huge debts and agonizing expenses. It doesn’t matter that the diversion of operational dollars will take opportunities away from county residents. Nor does it matter that a convention center has nothing to do with WCC’s mission. They just want a convention center, and they’re tired of talking about it.

And getting it would be easy. All it would take is a “cooperative” Board of Trustees. A set of Trustees who have convinced themselves that they’re “advisers” rather than fiduciaries. People who find it easier to eat, vote and leave than ask questions and make hard financial decisions. Trustees who approve literally every motion placed in front of them, no matter what. People who will agree to divert operational dollars away from College operations for anything else, as long as it “pays for itself.” (That’s Trustee-speak for “This won’t raise my property taxes, right?”)

Every seat on the WCC Board of Trustees is non-partisan. But that doesn’t mean the people who fill them leave their partisan politics at home.

If you want WCC to remain focused on education, pay attention to who’s financing the Trustees.

Photo Credit: Zach Korb , via Flickr