Four incumbents are hoping to keep their seats on the State Center Community College District board in the Nov. 3 general election, but to do so they’ll need to fend off challengers who in some cases have substantial campaign treasuries.
Several board candidates in the crowded election field have attracted large donations from local building trade unions.
The most prominent race pits embattled incumbent Eric Payne in a race for the Area 2 seat he has held since 2012. Payne’s opponents, communications professional Nasreen Michelle Johnson and Sevag Tateosian, a Fresno County analyst, each have raised more than $30,000, according to their most recent campaign finance reports.
Payne, by contrast, reported no donations.
Johnson and Tateosian aren’t alone with big campaign coffers. Retired educator Sally Fowler, who is looking to unseat Deborah Ikeda in the Area 6 race, has a campaign treasury of $28,500, outstripping Ikeda and Clovis businessman Chris Milton. Ikeda reported raising $2,525, while Milton’s donations totaled $583.
Only one other candidate — the board’s longest-serving trustee, Area 7 incumbent Richard Caglia — reported substantial campaign donations. Caglia, Fowler, and Johnson are beneficiaries of sizeable donations from labor unions.
Why so many candidates this year? Some agree that this year is much more highly politicized, motivating candidates to answer the call to action. Others have a more narrow focus on what they hope to accomplish if they are elected.
State Center, with four college campuses in Fresno, Reedley, and Madera, and a college center in Oakhurst, covers more than 5,743 square miles over most of Fresno and Madera counties and portions of Tulare and Kings counties.
Payne’s problems with state campaign finance laws are cited by his opponents as among the reasons he shouldn’t be re-elected.
In June 2019, Payne was fined $54,000 by the Fair Political Practices Commission on 21 violations of the Political Reform Act, including failing to file campaign statements on time, receiving prohibited cash contributions and making prohibited cash expenditures, and failing to maintain campaign records.
Payne said he is working with the FPPC to bring the issue to a close.
But a flyer distributed by the conservative political organization Common Sense Information notes that Payne’s problems extend beyond his campaign finances. It references investigations into Payne’s use of his district credit card to pay his PG&E bill and use of a relative’s handicapped parking placard.
Tateosian said he has lost faith with Payne over his “myriad of legal issues and personal scandals.” Johnson said Payne has lost the community’s trust and also damaged his ability to lead because of the campaign finance law violations.
Area 2 represents the northwestern portion of the district in Fresno County, stretching from Pinedale through southwest Fresno and westward into the county.
Payne, 36, is executive director of the nonprofit Central Valley Urban Institute. He said he’s determined to “give people that look like me and come from communities like mine, a seat at the table because I certainly wasn’t given a seat the table.”
He has a bachelor of science degree in biology-chemistry with a business administration minor and a masters of science degree in microbiology, both from Alabama A&M University.
Payne said State Center’s top priority is meeting the needs of students to guarantee they can be successful, which has included increasing funds in student support programs and expanding basic needs services such as food pantries.
At the same time, the needs of regional employers need to be met, he said.
Why should voters re-elect him? “We have gotten things done together by making college more affordable, creating more jobs, expanding career technical education access, expanding our first responders center with a new Police, Fire and EMT training center,” he said. “We have set the foundation for a regional Early Childhood Education training center.”
Nasreen Michelle Johnson
Johnson, 39, is making her third run for public office in the past three years. In November 2018 she came in second in a four-person race for the Fresno Unified School Board Area 7 seat that was won by Terry Slatic; four months later she came in second in a three-person race for the Fresno County Supervisor Area 2 seat that was captured by Steve Brandau.
Asked if she is a perennial candidate, Johnson noted that others, including City Councilman Mike Karbassi and county Supervisor Sal Quintero, didn’t win their first elections either. “It can take a few attempts to build community trust and name recognition,” she said. “I am ready to serve.”
Johnson, a communications strategist for the ACLU of Northern California and former marketing director for the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission, said State Center’s top issues are addressing declining enrollment and the loss of funding that will follow; making it easier for students to access technology; and making sure the new West Campus is built on time and on budget.
She said her qualifications for office include her bachelor of arts degree in business management and MBA, and her 20 years of experience in communications. As a first-generation college student and Fresno City College graduate, Johnson said she understands the importance of community colleges as a “gateway out of poverty.”
Johnson’s campaign report shows a total of $32,849 in donations, including $18,129 transferred from her supervisor campaign committee in donations from the Service Employees International Union Local 2015 ($11,029), Fresno-Madera-Tulare-Kings Counties Central Labor Council ($5,000), the Sheet Metal Workers International Association Local 104 ($2,000), and Fresno Unified trustee Veva Islas ($100). Donors to her State Center campaign committee include the State Center Federation of Teachers Committee on Political Education ($10,000), the United Association Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 246 Committee on Political Education ($1,500), and
International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 100 Committee on Political Education ($1,000).
Tateosian, 39, is a human resources analyst for the county health department who previously worked as an aide to then-supervisor Debbie Poochigian. He also hosts “Central Valley Ledger,” a community affairs program on CMAC.
With his experience in public health and nonprofits and his degree from San Joaquin College of Law, Tateosian said he is the strongest and most well-rounded candidate in the race.
The most important issues in State Center are expanding vocational and technical training, improving graduation and completion rates, making sure the district is financially sound after the COVID crisis passes, expanding financial education for students, and developing stronger relationships with industries so State Center students and alumni will have a place in the workforce.
And for the new West Campus under construction in Area 2, Tateosian said he wants to make sure the board makes sound financial and educational decisions.
According to his most recent campaign report, Tateosian has raised $30,447. His donors include Associated Builders and Contractors of Northern California ($5,000), Granville Homes president and GV Wire publisher Darius Assemi ($5,000), developer Richard Spencer ($2,500), state Sen. Andreas Borgeas ($2,000), and farmer Keith Koligian ($2,000).
John Leal is seeking re-election to his third term in Area 3, which stretches from central Fresno southeast through Reedley. Leal’s opponents are Dary Rezvani, owner of Mid Valley Auto Repair, and Danielle Parra, a Fowler graduate student.
Rezvani reports the largest campaign treasury at $29,462, but almost all of it — $28,025 — he loaned himself. Leal and Parra both reported zero donations.
Leal, 70, is a retired educator who is serving this year as the State Center board president. He says his experience on the board, plus his lengthy career as a high school teacher and administrator, make him the most qualified candidate.
Transportation has been an issue for students coming to Reedley from Kingsburg, Sanger, Selma, and Fowler, and Leal said he has worked with college and city officials to realign bus schedules to accommodate students. The issue became moot when schools were closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Leal said his focus shifted to addressing students’ technology needs so they can remain connected with their classes.
While State Center has made considerable progress over the past eight years, “I believe we have important work ahead of us,” Leal said.
Rezvani, a small business owner who will turn 30 on Election Day, is mounting his second political campaign this year. He came in third in the March primary among the Democratic candidates for Rep. Devin Nunes’ 22nd Congressional District seat. Asked if he’s a perennial candidate, Rezvani replies, “No, just trying to make a difference.”
Rezvani said he understands students’ needs because he was one, at Fresno City College, not too long ago. “I know how hard it can be for students and teachers and we don’t need elected officials who are trying to make it harder,” he said, pointing to the decision to privatize college bookstores that resulted in many students being unable to obtain textbooks.
The most important issues facing the district, he said, are lowering book costs for students, addressing inequity in adjunct teacher pay and benefits, and creating a pipeline between K-12 school districts and the community colleges.
Parra is a graduate student in public administration in the San Diego State University online program who also is bookkeeper for Kirsch Pest Control and a retail associate for Banana Republic. At 22, she is the youngest candidate running for the State Center board, and she says she can provide a fresh perspective about the issues and needs of college students and faculty, as well as be an advocate for making sure students and teachers have access to the resources they need to be successful.
Those needs include making sure students can stay on track to graduate on time and move on to a four-year college or career, providing support and fair benefits to part-time faculty, and seeking legislative support for community colleges even though enrollments — which are used when calculating state budgeting — have dipped, Parra said.
Deborah Ikeda, a retired State Center college president, is facing two Clovis residents in the election for the Area 6 seat: Sally Fowler, a longtime K-12 educator and administrator, and Chris Milton, a businessman and a civil rights advocate who rose to prominence locally in last summer’s protests over the killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd by police.
Area 6 includes northwest and east-central Fresno, Clovis, and stretches eastward in the county to the Pine Flat reservoir.
Ikeda, 68, is seeking her second term on the board, which she joined after a career of more than 40 years in higher education. She worked 35 years in various State Center jobs: dean of counseling and interim vice president of instruction at Fresno City College, vice president of instruction and student services for the North Centers (Clovis, Madera, and Oakhurst), and finally as founding president of Clovis Community College in northeast Fresno.
The top issues, she says, are providing tools for students to succeed with distance learning during the pandemic, including having devices and internet access; supporting students with financial aid, food pantries, foster youth and veterans services, tutoring and counseling; closing the achievement gap by providing appropriate services to underperforming students; and continuing to focus on and champion diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“I also believe there is work yet to be done to close the achievement gap for our diverse student populations,” she said. “As such, I am currently co-chairing one of the statewide trustee Workgroups on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion that is responsible for developing toolkits on best practices for achieving this very important goal that will be distributed to all California Community College trustees statewide.”
Ikeda said she wants to be re-elected so she can guide the district through the COVID crisis and oversee the construction projects in bond measures C and E that include the proposed Applied Technology building at Clovis Community College, the long-awaited First Responders Academy, and the West Fresno campus.
Ikeda loaned $2,000 to her campaign and received smaller donations from six people, including three State Center employees.
Fowler, 62, retired from Fresno Unified School District as executive officer of college and career readiness after nearly four decades. She says she will be a strong advocate for Clovis Community College if she is elected to the State Center board.
That includes expanding the campus to provide more course offerings, hiring more staff to lower class sizes — Fowler says Clovis Community classes average 50 students per teacher, compared to 35 to 1 at Fresno City — and making sure that the capital projects bond money is well-managed.
State Center needs to strengthen its connections with K-12 school districts and also work more closely with local industries to ensure that the college graduates have the training and skills they will need to be successful, she said.
“I know the critical role the community college system plays in our economy, and the role education can play in allowing poor students to achieve a middle-class income,” she said. “We can and must do more for all students.”
According to her campaign finance report, Fowler’s campaign donors are herself and her husband, Jay, who co-own Fowler’s Construction Co. ($13,000), the State Center Federation of Teachers Political Action Committee ($10,000), Pipe Trades District Council #36 ($3,000), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 100 Committee on Political Education ($1,000), and United Association Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 246 Committee on Political Education ($1,500).
Milton did not respond to repeated requests for information from GV Wire. According to his campaign website, Milton moved his family from Oakland to Clovis in 2004. The disabled Air Force veteran has a bachelor’s degree from University of Phoenix and is working on his master’s in business administration.
His website says he is running for the State Center board because he sees opportunities for growth in the system.
“Here in the Valley, we have some of the brightest and most innovative students in the state, and we need to provide them with tools to manifest their potential into workable skills and knowledge. The largest factor that will contribute to this is by creating value and trust of our collegiate opportunities, starting at the Community College level. Our business decisions as it relates to our Community College System have to align with our desired goals for our students, or else the students will CONTINUE to look at the system as a consolation destination rather than as a true contributor to their growth.”
He reported $583 in campaign contributions.
Caglia is seeking his fourth term on the board. He did not respond to questions from GV Wire about his candidacy for the Area 7 seat, which encompasses portions of north and central Fresno.
Caglia, president of Caglia Diversified Management, reported campaign donations from Andreas Borgeas’ 2022 Senate campaign committee ($2,500), Kashian Enterprises ($1,000), International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 100 Committee on Political Education ($1,000), United Association Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 246 Committee on Political Education ($1,500), Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1027 PAC ($2,500), and $500 each from the 2020 Fresno City Council campaigns of Garry Bredefeld and Mike Karbassi.
Challenger Abena Cruise, 44, is a community health representative for Table Mountain Rancheria and a a member of the Black Women Organized for Political Action. She said she and others are running for office this year because recent national and global events, including the COVID-19 pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, have spurred political activism.
Cruise said the most important issues facing the district are ensuring that students and faculty have the tools they need to be successful during the COVID-19 pandemic, and also ensuring equity access for community college students. Her biggest campaign donor is Vernell Walker Marquez, medical administrator at Table Mountain Rancheria ($2,000).
Sunnyside teacher Jon Bath’s name is still on the ballot. Bath says he has dropped out of the race but declined to comment further.