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FRC board spars – one trustee initiates investigation

October’s Feather River College Board of Trustees meeting highlighted an essential issue regarding the role of trustees in governing the college.

During their self-evaluation in June 2019, the board requested that FRC President Kevin Trutna bring the document titled Key Principles of the Board of Trustees to the board for discussion. It was part of the board’s ongoing efforts to understand their role in college governance and accreditation.

The Key Principles, adopted Nov. 15, 2018, came from the Community College League of California Trustee Handbook, Accreditation Commission For Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) Standards, California Education Code and Title 5 Regulations, and past practices at FRC.

The Key Principles document outlines the board’s role in selecting, supporting and directing the work of the college president, the only employee who reports to the board. It also delineates the board’s role in governing the college through policy and states that board members must themselves adhere to all laws and accreditation standards.

Further, it spells out board responsibilities in overseeing accreditation standards and monitoring student achievement and learning outcomes, as well as approving budgets, curriculum, new programs and facilities plans.

The college president and employees, in contrast, are responsible for the daily operations of the college and for implementing policies.

These Key Principles were approved by the board before trustee Trent Saxton was elected. At the October meeting he made it clear he was very unhappy with them. “I find this against my First Amendment rights. I should be able to ask any staff member any question.”

Trustee John Sheehan disagreed, saying the only staff member the board was supposed to oversee was President Trutna. He added that Saxton’s way of thinking “undermines the president.”

Saxton countered that he felt the board came up with these principles to “control” him. Also, he implied that he was conducting his own personal investigation of President Trutna.

Trustee Bill Elliott stated that if there was a suspicion of wrongdoing, he expected the matter to be brought to the full board.

“Why is one person on the board doing an investigation?” asked Board President Dana Ware.

“Because maybe the other ones aren’t doing their job,” answered Saxton.

Trutna then asked “if this was one trustee acting on their own or the board acting as one?”

Finally, Saxton said of the Key Principles document, including its laws and accreditation standards governing board conduct, “I object to all of this. I would throw it out.”

When asked later about this exchange, Trutna said, “A trustee’s primary responsibility is to focus on what’s best for students and the school — to provide quality education. We can’t lose sight of that.”

Further, Trutna always has accreditation in his mind as he makes decisions, because losing accreditation would mean losing student financial aid funding and an “assurance to our students that their degree is meaningful.”

It is vital that the board follows the ACCJC standards for its roles and responsibilities.

If it doesn’t, it jeopardizes the college’s accreditation status.

Accreditation, he explained, is based on agreed upon standards and best practices for community colleges. Trutna has led numerous accreditation teams, including one this past month at Carrington College. He is well versed in accreditation standards and best practices.

He likes to include other staff members on these visits, he said, so they gain hands-on experience in order to create a “culture of accreditation” at the college. He added, “FRC recently had an excellent accreditation review, and it was because of the focus on quality education and agreed-upon processes that govern FRC.”

The public knows FRC is an accredited college, that it conforms to certain standards, including “hours required, breadth of topics, that we’re financially sound, that we provide a good education.” When asked about the board acting as one, Trutna added, “that is an agreed upon standard for accreditation.”

Indeed, the Community College League of California Handbook, on page 51, highlights the ACCJC requirement that college boards act as a unified body: “One of the most basic tenets of effective trusteeship is the recognition that governing authority rests with the entire board, not with any individual trustee. As individuals, trustees have no authority to direct staff, determine programs and procedures, or represent the college, and ethical trustees do not try to do so.”

Further, several items in Key Principles are based on state laws: The Brown Act (which provides for public access to board meetings and documents), and AB 1725 (which outlines a system of shared governance by which college boards consult with faculty senates on certain matters), for example. These laws are not something a board member can choose to throw out if the college wishes to remain compliant.

Trutna said that at the November board meeting, Richard Winn, the President of ACCJC, will give a presentation on accreditation, and he’ll clarify the board’s role in that process. This is part of ongoing board training, which the board also requested during their summer retreat.

Finally, when asked about Saxton invoking his First Amendment rights, Trutna said, “I never thought there was a question of preventing First Amendment rights,” but that, “in my experience with accreditation, in taking on the role of trustee, or even my job as president, we all accept certain responsibilities to the college we serve. If the regulations or accreditation standards are not followed, the college may face consequences.”

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