Saturday, August 28, 2010

Community group responds to revelations of fishy dealings between SWC and PR firm

In a
previous post, we referenced Susan Luzzaro's piece in the San Diego Reader, "Isolate, Expose, Avoid."
That article described SWC's $100,000 agreement with San Diego marketing firm Focuscom, Inc. for public relations services related to Prop R construction. Many of these "services" are designed to keep the public in line and quell debate.

Now, you can read the full agreement and plan, signed by SWC Vice President of Business and Financial Affairs Nicholas Alioto.

Community group Crossroads II did, and they are understandably shocked
. President Peter Watry sent the email below to group supporters:

From: Crossroads II>
Subject: Feel Dizzy? If Not, You Soon Will...
Date: Tuesday, August 24, 2010, 11:02 PM

...because you are about to be spun. We learned from an article recently published in the San Diego Reader ( ) that in March Southwestern College approved a $100,000 contract with Focuscom Inc., for a "Proposition R Public Affairs Plan." The actual Plan approved by the College administration is now available on the Reader website, and we have attached it to this message. The key objectives of the Public Affairs Plan are to: Maintain momentum that led to approval of Prop R; Isolate and expose extremists; Identify, cultivate and engage supporters; and Manage the media. After reading this Plan, we are stunned. We are stunned to read that "All public affairs tactics will be geared toward driving target audiences to information sources controlled by the College." We are stunned to read that "Names culled from supporters lists will be used to draft and submit letters to the Editors and blog entries that support the land use efforts of the College." We are stunned to read that Crossroads II is a key target of this initiative. And we were most stunned to learn that Southwestern College is using our own money to spin us.

So exactly who is Focuscom Inc? According to the Focuscom website, " Our highly experienced team implements customized decisive planning in order to influence the media and impact the right audiences." Turns out that the President of Focuscom is Dan Hom. A former Chula Vista City Planning Commissioner, Dan Hom was a consultant for the Yes on Prop R campaign as well as the former Vice President of the Southwestern College Foundation. Talk about insider dealing....

SWC is expected to more than double in enrollment by 2020, up to 50,000 students, according to the California Community Colleges Chancellor's Office. In 2008 the voters in the district served by Southwestern College voted to increase their own property taxes to the tune of $389 million to help the college accommodate this new growth. And now Southwestern College is using $100,000 of our property tax money to spin us about the projects our money is financing. A few questions: Was this expenditure approved by the Prop R Citizens Bond Oversight Committee? According to the Bylaws of the Citizens Bond Oversight Committee, one of its duties is to inform the public and the Board concerning the District's expenditure of bond proceeds. The Committee met last month, after the contract with Focuscom was approved. Was the Oversight Committee informed about the contract? Was the Board of Governors informed? How was Focuscom chosen for this contract? Were other firms considered? Was there a competitive bidding process? Exactly who are the "extremists" that the Public Affairs Plan will cause to be isolated and exposed? Shouldn't the Southwestern College Board demand that this contract be rescinded?

If you wish to express your views on this issue you can reach members of the Southwestern College Board as follows:

Yolanda Salcido, Board President

Terri Valladolid

Jean Roesch

Jorge Dominguez

Nick Aguilar

Thanks for caring about our community,
Peter Watry, Acting President,
Crossroads II, and
Professor Emeritus, Southwestern College

By the way, the next regularly scheduled meeting of the SWC Governing Board is Wednesday, Sept. 8, at 7:00 pm on the main campus, Board Room 214. See you there--it should be a good one!

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mo' Money!

You've hopefully already seen the recent San Diego Union-Tribune article, "College VP Raised Money from Contractors He Oversees."

In the article, Tanya Sierra reports that Southwestern College's Vice President for Business and Financial Affairs, Nicholas Alioto, hosted a May 20th fundraiser for incumbent Governing Board candidates Yolanda Salcido and Terri Valladolid. Donors at the event included Seville Construction Services and Echo Pacific Construction, both of which subsequently received generous contracts from Prop R funds ($2.7 million and $4 million, respectively).

According to Sierra, "The officials said there is no link between the contracts and the contributions, but critics are skeptical."

That's putting it mildly. If the 104 comments (including some excuse-making by Alioto himself) so far are any indication, the community is outraged.

One commenter summarized the situation thusly: "You have a board that is ignoring the accreditation issues that the college faces for the first time in 50 years in the college's history in favor of kingdom building and collecting favors from contractors. Hundreds of teachers and staff have been let go with the cut of 40% of classes in the past 2 years and the budget reserves continue to swell. Teachers and staff are trying to save the school for the folks they are there for - STUDENTS."

If you haven't yet had an opportunity to read the article, please use the link above to find it on SignOn San Diego. If you saw it before, please go back and catch up on the comments that have been posted in the meantime. And either way, please add your voice to the discussion.
"Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain't goin' away." --Elvis Presley

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Money In, Money Out

A new piece in the San Diego Reader, "Isolate, Expose, Avoid," draws attention to more questionable SWC administrator practices, both ethical and financial.

In the article, author Susan Luzzaro reveals that the college has entered into an agreement, signed by SWC vice president of financial affairs Nick Alioto, with a San Diego marketing firm for public relations services related to Prop R construction. The price? $100,000.

Prop R, voter-approved in 2008, grants $389 million to the college for new construction and improvements. Needless to say, that amount of money has developers frothing at the mouth and eager to quash any public dissent that could distract from their endeavors.

Focuscom Inc. to the rescue. According to documents unearthed by Luzzaro, Focuscom promises to "Maintain momentum that led to approval [of Prop R]; isolate and expose extremists; identify, cultivate and engage diverse supports; manage the media." For more details that will enrage any thinking member of "the public," please read the entire article.

There are several points not covered in the article (though some mentioned in comments) that bear consideration:
  • Dan Hom, President of Focuscom, Inc., is either a current (if you follow the comments) or former (if you check Hom's online bio and/or the very scant records on SWC's public web site) officer of the SWC Foundation. In other words, someone who is or used to be responsible for bringing money into the college is now cashing out.
  • SWC already has a well-paid employee to manage public communication: Chris Bender. Providing information to the community is his job, yet apparently he needs $100K worth of help when it comes to Prop R.
  • Developers who focus on public monies are highly organized. These are not blue-collar guys in hardhats defending themselves.
  • One popular organization, CASH (no, we're not making this up!) hosts regular conferences and workshops. The Seville Group (winner of big Prop R bids) is a member, as is just about every taxpayer-funded contractor and consulting firm in the state. For a recent example, see their list of sponsors for a 2008 conference. Really, scroll through, and keep scrolling. You'll get a taste of the competition for taxpayer money.
  • CASH ostensibly stands for (California's) Coalition for Affordable Student Housing. But their newsletter is called the CASH Register. Pretty transparent, no?
One thing is sure: the guys with the big bucks count on us (the folk with the few bucks) to not pay attention to this stuff. We don't have lobbyists and coalitions and organizations looking out for our interests. We can't afford it.

But we can still make noise. We can still push on so-called "public" interests that should be paying attention. . . .

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever does” -- Margaret Mead

Thursday, August 12, 2010

SWC in the News, Again

In the San Diego Reader, "Southwestern Suitors" points out some thought-provoking relationships between campaign contributors to Governing Board incumbents Terri Valladolid and Yolanda Salcido.

As the November 2010 election looms, contractors, architects, landscapers, and other folk who have absolutely nothing to do with education (beyond vying for taxpayers' dollars) have been lining up to line the campaign coffers of Valladolid and Salcido.

With Proposition R monies on the table (to the tune of $389 million), it's no wonder the construction industry has come a-courtin'.

And, to be honest, it's not surprising that Valladolid and Salcido would sit up and listen. Those are some big bucks talking.

It's dismaying, however, to realize that this is what community college governance has come to: a group of insiders, mutually profiteering off each others' endeavors.

We don't think that's what education should be about.

What do you think?

Please read the article and post your (thoughtful!) comments.