Strong competition for district trustee

Elizabeth McLaurin, Staff Writer

In what’s shaping up to be a tight race, Ward 2 voters will choose this Election Day among three candidates — an incumbent, a former district college president and a former Diablo Valley College student — for a spot as trustee on the Contra Costa Community College District Governing Board.

After running unchallenged in 2016, two-term incumbent Vicki Gordon is facing her most experienced competition yet in former DVC President Judy Walters, who’s received notable endorsements from the United Faculty and the Contra Costa Labor Council. Also running is former DVC student John Michaelson.

Walters has an extensive administrative work history in California. Before serving as president at DVC, she first held the role at Berkeley City College. Recently she’s held positions as interim chancellor for the Chabot-Las Positas Community College District, and interim president at both Woodland Community College and Yuba College.

While still at Yuba, Walters was approached by a few contacts from the district colleges who wanted her to run for the Ward 2 seat. After giving it serious thought, she reached back out and was met with enthusiasm.

“I said OK, I’m seriously thinking about running, what do you guys think? And they said yes, we need you and this is perfect for you. It was just overwhelming support,” said Walters.

Gordon is a well-known figure within Contra Costa County education circles. Growing up in the East Bay, she attended area schools and after college, started teaching in the district. In I997, she began the first of a 15-year stint on the Martinez Unified School Board and in 2012 she was elected to her first term as the governing board trustee from Ward 2, the same position her grandfather George Gordon held for 28 years.

It wasn’t until the district started investigating complaints of alleged ethics violations that Gordon’s seat became a point of contention. In September 2019, Gordon was named in multiple complaints including making harassing phone calls to several district employees and fellow board members while intoxicated, violating the Brown Act by calling board members Rebecca Barrett and Andy Li to garner support to remain board president, and calling district employees in an attempt to get an item pulled from the agenda that had personal financial implications.

Although Gordon signed a resolution acknowledging the complaints in July 2020, she wrote an open letter shortly after disputing the legitimacy of the allegations and questioning the procedure of the investigation.

“There is no substance to these ethics violations,” Gordon wrote. “I met with board chair Rebecca Barrett and the lawyer/investigator at their request in an effort to resolve the issues — I was not allowed to have my lawyer attend — and I reluctantly decided to agree to informally resolve the matter… the entire complaint resolution process and meeting was a clear set up.”

In a recent interview, Gordon further explained that there was no proof to most the allegations made against her and that she’s being held up to higher scrutiny.

“If you look at the report, the report is very questionable, there’s so many flaws and biases in it,” said Gordon. “It is based on hearsay and in a court of law, that would be totally inadmissible.”

When asked how, if re-elected, she would approach another term working on the board amid the recent criticisms surrounding her decision-making, Gordon made it clear that she wasn’t someone who bailed when things got tough. She emphasized that increased cooperation and refocusing energy back on the students would be priorities.

“I need to work harder and get along better with my board colleagues,” she said. “I’ve been saying, the more that we focus on student success, the more we focus on our students, the less time we’ll have for the nitpicking and the backstabbing.”

Before joining the race, Walters was aware of the current dissension engulfing the governing board, and on the campaign trail she’s made it a point to sign into all district meetings open to the public.

“Trustees have a particular role and responsibility, their role is putting together the policies that need to be put into place and making sure to stay within budget,” said Walters. “I’ve been attending their meetings… I did not see anything like that happening in any of the board meetings, so that just makes me much more interested in being on the board.”

Walters believes in the comprehensive and sweeping nature of community colleges and appreciates that they are a place for everyone. If elected, she specifically outlined stabilization of the district office, increasing opportunities for student success, financial responsibility, and upholding social justice values as top priorities.

“Things I want to do is create a stable district office and staff. That’s really important, especially now during COVID… I want to achieve financial stability and that includes the ability to meet contractual obligations, and I want support for students to achieve their goals,” said Walters. “I believe those are things that we can do and that we can do together.”

For her part, Gordon said she is proud of her long service record fighting for educational excellence and what she’s worked to achieve as a trustee. Chief among them she said is fostering communication between K-12 schools and the community college district, implementing the diversity, equity and inclusion hiring practices, and updating campus facilities in regards to both infrastructure and technology.

Looking ahead, Gordon said she’s always been passionate about students and wants to work on creating better metrics to measure student success and managing funds as new financial policies take place.

“The state is trying to shift in a new funding formula that will, if it is passed, it will impact us,” she said. “I’ve got to make sure that the funding is there to do what I think is the most important job in this community, which is to help our students.”

Not to be overlooked is Michaelson, who has “participated in progressive activism for over 10 years.” He said growing up in the East Bay to an indigenous and working class family was something that early on, inspired his passion to converse with people from diverse backgrounds and advocate for the disadvantaged.

At DVC, Michaelson participated in student government which showed him “the possibilities of service to the community through leadership.” And despite not holding a public office before, he sees this more as an asset than a liability.

“I’m running for the CCCCD because there is a need for more young people on the board. As a Native American member of the Absentee Shawnee nation, I also see the importance of elevating more POC voices to help address the issues of their communities,” he said. “The community college system should be serving the students above all — not as customers, but as valued constituents and members of the community.”

Michaelson’s top priorities for the district highlight his student-centric approach. He said he wants to work to expand basic healthcare for students, increase workforce development partnerships for better career training, provide more resources for students to protect against intimidation and violence on campus, develop better pathways for graduating high school students, and to bolster screenings and plans in the case of future pandemics.