A quarter of its community college students graduate or transfer. A third of nine campuses risk losing accreditation. And its chancellor just resigned.
The challenged Los Angeles Community College District offers a leg up into higher education for come-from-behind Angelenos. Yet its governing board gets scant attention.
On March 5, voters will choose between eight candidates vying for three at-large seats on the LACCD Board of Trustees.
"It's a tough race, because it's a large district that no one in hell knows about," said David Vela, 37, of Montebello, who is competing against three candidates for Seat No. 6.
The sprawling L.A. district, the largest in the nation, serves more than 240,000 students across 36 cities and cost $626 million to operate.
Each trustee candidate expressed hope in managing the district's daunting budget squeeze, construction bond headaches, accreditation worries and dismal graduation and transfer rates.
In the rearview mirror, the district has lost $100 million in state funds since 2009, compelling it to close 1,500 class sections.
It's also been forced to revamp a voter-approved, $5.7-billion campus rebuilding program after state Controller John Chiang found "shoddy fiscal management and subpar oversight."
Last year, a state accreditation commission put Los Angeles Harbor and Los Angeles Southwest colleges on probation, while issuing a warning to West Los Angeles College.
This followed a study the year before that showed Los Angeles community colleges lagged behind others in the state, with three of four students failing to earn degrees or transfers..
Its chancellor, Daniel LaVista, announced last week he would step down in June. He said despite the Prop. 30 sales tax increase that gave hundreds of millions back to higher education, the district still projected it would be $25 million to $30 million in the red.
For the future, the district is looking at a new round of accreditation reviews this month at three San Fernando Valley colleges.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed new California Community Colleges reforms and funding formulas, to affect 112 campuses statewide.
One includes saddling community colleges with adult education programs now taught by K-12 schools. For the Los Angeles district, that may mean teaching 200,000 more students.
A state bill passed last year to allow the district to run winner-take-all primaries to avoid a runoff election costing up to $5 million has not been approved by the board.
"We haven't made a change to the primary until after this election cycle is over ... so as not to confuse voters," LACCD President Steve Veres said of AB 2572.
Eight candidates are contending for three of seven Board of Trustees seats, which pay up to $24,000 a year. There are two wide-open races.
For Seat No. 2, John Burke, a retired community college accounting instructor of Chatsworth, is battling Mike Eng, a termed-out assemblyman of Monterey Park.
As of Jan. 21, it was unclear what Burke had collected for his campaign, according to the Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder/County Clerk. Eng, however, drew $105,000, mostly in union contributions. Neither had filed a statement by late Thursday, the close of the filing deadline.
Burke, 68, told the League of Woman Voters he hoped to improve the quality of teaching through joint seminars with four-year universities. He also hopes to impose strict accounting practices across the district.
Eng, 66, said he is qualified to run the district having served as a city councilman, mayor and as a former legislator facing a "fiscal cliff."
For Seat No. 4, Jozef Essavi, a real estate broker and repeat candidate of Van Nuys, is pitted against Ernest Moreno, a retired president of East Los Angeles and L.A. Mission colleges, of Los Angeles.
Essavi, 38, has billed himself as a consensus builder and problem solver who would focus on high student dropout rates, limited courses, misused building funds and the influence of special interests.
Moreno, 66, said he hoped to save money through efficiency, providing more opportunity for students. He also advocated each campus have control over its own budgets and classes.
Essavi, who didn't file Thursday, had raised $3,600 by mid-January, according to county election records. In comparison, Moreno had drawn $55,000, with large donations from engineering and architectural firms, while accruing $78,000 in debt.
Seat No. 6 harbors the most competitive race, with three candidates vying with an incumbent.
Nancy Pearlman, a trustee since 2001, defended a record of staunch environmentally friendly construction. She aims to focus on accreditation, student success, green construction and financial accountability.
"I'm grass roots," Pearlman, 64, of Los Angeles, told the Daily News. "I'm out there. Students and faculty love me. But everybody thinks you can buy this election."
Tom Oliver, a retired president of Pierce and L.A. Mission colleges, touted experience as a community college student, teacher and administrator.
He said the biggest challenge to the L.A. district was a threat to campus accreditation, which could cost students valuable loans. He also advocated training for its board in complex budget issues, and more online instruction for students.
"I understand the issues," said Oliver, 67, of Chatsworth. "I understand the accreditation issues. I understand business. I know what needs to be done."
Vela, a board member of the Montebello Unified School district and chief of staff for Assemblyman Roger Hernandez, D-West Covina, has major union backing.
He advocates for less district bureaucracy, more teachers for students. He also said professors should bear more responsibility counseling students.
"I'm socially liberal, but very fiscally conservative," said Vega. "We have a really crummy system in which few students graduate because of the excesses ... of bureaucracy."
By Thursday, Pearlman had raised $12,500, Oliver had drawn $4,400 and Vela had garnered $178,000, mostly in union backing.
Mike Aldapa, a community organizer certified as a Seat 6 candidate, did not file election papers.