SAN MARCOS — After an hour and a half closed session at the end of Palomar College’s Governing Board five-hour Dec. 17 meeting, the board announced it voted to place President Joi Lin Blake on paid administrative leave and to launch an outside independent investigation in a 3-2 tally.
With 15 of the original 150 attendees remaining in the Howard Brubeck Theater, Governing Board Chair Nancy Ann Hensch came back with the announcement.
Jack Kahn, currently the assistant superintendent and vice president of instructional services, will serve as acting president for the college until the matter is resolved. Governing Board members John Halcón and Mark Evilsizer voted against the motion.
“This is non-disciplinary pending investigation,” Hensch said to the remaining crowd. “Again, this is non-disciplinary and being taken as a precautionary measure to protect all parties involved.”
Hensch told The Coast News after making the announcement and closing the hearing that the board could not answer further questions about the scope or nature of the investigation.
Hensch said the investigator will utilize the services of the law firm Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo on as-needed basis as part of the probe.
Blake has come under fire for months by college faculty and staff for financial and personnel decisions she has made during her tenure there. They charge that, due to Blake’s leadership, the college has reached the “high risk” of fiscal insolvency status recently designated by the Fiscal Crisis Management & Assistance Team (FCMAT) and recently did a “vote of no confidence” on Blake, calling for her to step down. FCMAT is a state agency with oversight and investigative responsibilities over public K-12 schools and community colleges.
Kahn also made a request of the public to “respect the privacy of all parties at this time” in a press release disseminated by the college.
“Doing so will allow us to focus on the important work of the District,” said Kahn. “Together, we will remain focused on student success, our response to the FCMAT report and building toward a successful spring semester.”
Palomar College Professor of Mathematics Shannon Lienhart, a longtime critic of Blake and allied Governing Board members, praised the board for its decision.
“Putting Blake on administrative leave for an independent investigation is important,” said Lienhart. “Otherwise, an investigator is not going to get honest answers. Blake has created a climate of fear and anyone who steps out of line is in danger of being fired or retaliated against in some form.”
Blake, who was not available for comment, had recently told The Coast News that she was preparing to testify in front of the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office Board of Governors at its Jan. 13 and Jan. 14 meeting and to answer its questions about FCMAT’s fiscal health risk analysis report. The FCMAT report was published on Nov. 8 and presented to the Governing Board on Nov. 12.
The Governing Board meeting started with a presentation given by Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who said that the FCMAT analysis “raises some significant concerns” about Palomar College’s financial status. FCMAT’s report concluded that Palomar College “has a structural deficit of $11,748,859.00 for the 2019-20 fiscal year.”
“The Palomar Community College District is a very important district for the state of California and the students that it serves are some of the most promising students, as well as many of them living in some of the most vulnerable communities in the state,” said Oakley to the Governing Board. “The work that you do on behalf of the people of California on the district is very important. So, we are very concerned with what the FCMAT report tells us about the fiscal health of the district, the fiscal management of the district and what that means to the students of this district.”
Oakley also said that the Chancellor’s Office is considering sending in a fiscal monitor to oversee Palomar College’s response to the recommendations in the FCMAT analysis. He pointed to a similar recent action taken at the Peralta Community College District in the San Francisco Bay Area. In the worst-case scenario, if the college does not take actions to reverse course on its fiscal deficit, Oakley said the Chancellor’s Office could appoint a special trustee to oversee that mission.
“It is not the desire of the (California Community Colleges Chancellor’s) Board of Governors to assign a special trustee, we want and we trust that the board of trustees will do its work and we’re going to do everything we can to support that work,” Oakley said. “But if there is a situation that the Board of Governors feels that the fiscal health of the district is in such dire straits that it threatens the academic progress of students in the district, then it does have that option to step in.”
After the meeting, English as a Second Language Professor Lawrence Lawson — one of several faculty members who stayed until the end of the meeting — said what kept him there until the end.
“I stayed because we brought up a lot of important issues during this Governing Board meeting and the previous Governing Board meetings that require an answer to the Governing Board and we are going to continue to stay and show up and let them know that we are here to hear their answer,” said Lawson. “So, whatever the result of that closed session was, we need to stay to see if it’s an answer to any of the questions that we raised. I think with the tenor of that statement, we don’t know what it is about. But the vote and the split indicates that it’s something quite serious, so we look forward to more information.”
The Governing Board is scheduled to meet again on Jan. 13.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story referenced a second independent investigation that was not related to Dr. Blake being put on leave. This reference was taken out of the story to eliminate possible confusion.