The Beginning of the Beginning

The Beginning of the Beginning

Mum on closed session action, PCC officials confirm then deny Rocha’s severance package

By André Coleman 08/14/2014

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Pasadena City College officials can’t seem to get their stories straight about how beleaguered Superintendent Mark Rocha left his $254,000-a-year job.   


On Aug. 7 a press release was issued by the college stating Rocha would resign at the end of August. The previous night, the Board of Trustees formally accepted Rocha’s resignation in closed session, said sources close to the negotiations. No formal announcement was made by the trustees following the meeting. 


Rocha did not attend the meeting. By then, he had already been replaced by Acting Superintendent-President Robert Miller, PCC’s assistant superintendent and senior vice president of business.


Trustee and former Pasadena Mayor Bill Thomson told the Courier, the campus newspaper, that there was a severance package in place between Rocha and the college. However, after the Pasadena Weekly filed a request for a copy of the agreement under California’s Public Records Act, PCC General Counsel Gail Cooper claimed there was no such agreement.


“There is no severance agreement with Dr. Rocha in effect,” Cooper wrote Sunday in an email to the Weekly. 


When contacted again on Monday, Thomson confirmed the existence of the agreement.


“I don’t know what her basis would be for denying the request,” Thomson said. “It definitely exists.”


Thomson and other trustees are prohibited from divulging details of what happens in closed sessions but are required to make a public announcement about any action taken. Thomson would not disclose when the severance agreement was approved or if it had been discussed during closed session.


Cooper has not responded to several follow-up emails by the Weekly, which has refiled its request for the documents. California’s Public Records Act is designed to give the public access to certain employee information possessed by public agencies, including salaries, contracts and severance pay.


Terry Francke of the watchdog group Californians Aware said trustees would have to make an announcement if a vote was taken. How each member voted would also have to be disclosed. Rocha’s contract and any possible severance package would be considered a public record, Francke said.


In its PRA request, the Weekly seeks copies of any “contracts, settlement agreements, or other documents” discussed, voted on or agreed upon during closed session at the Aug. 6 board meeting.”


Miller did not return phone calls seeking comment for this story. Emails sent to Rocha before the announcement last week were not returned.


In a prepared statement on Aug. 7, Rocha said he is resigning at the end of the month to spend more time with his family. His wife recently took a new job in New York. Rocha was a finalist for the superintendent’s position at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn but he was not offered the job.


“I’ve started my tenth year as a community college president and that is a good long run in this kind of work,” Rocha said in the statement.  “It’s time for me to spend more time with my family and return to my passion for teaching and writing.”


Evidence of Rocha’s departure began surfacing last week, according to faculty members who told the Weekly in a series of electronic messages that Rocha was no longer included in email distribution lists. 


When reached by phone before the Aug. 6 meeting, Trustees Ross Selvidge and Berlinda Brown would neither confirm nor deny if Rocha was still working at the college.


In the Courier article, Thomson said that the college had been working on parting ways with Rocha since March. In previous interviews, Rocha and Board President Anthony Fellow denied these statements and took student reporters to task in April when asked if the trustees were working on ways to have Rocha step down.


“I speak for the board in saying that we accept Dr. Rocha’s decision to retire with profound gratitude for his leadership over the past four years,” Fellow said in a prepared statement released Aug. 7. “Dr. Rocha brought the college safely through one of the worst budget cuts in California history. We well understand and fully respect his decision to turn the reins over to the great administrative team he has assembled.”


Fellow did not respond to calls and emails from the Weekly seeking comment.


Rocha had come under fire over the past two years after a series of missteps resulted in no-confidence votes taken against him by the school’s Senate Faculty and Associated Student Body (ASB). 


Since 2012, the college has faced heavy criticism for a number of incidents. One was the decision to allow a professor to teach a class on Internet pornography and bring porn stars on campus to speak to students. The professor later admitted to having sex on campus with one of his students.


In another incident, the administration suspended a journalism professor advising college newspaper reporters, who were writing stories critical of
Rocha and the cancellation of the schools winter intersession classes.


The suspension was brought on by a claim of sexual harassment filed by a male journalism student who was following widespread protests against the decision to cut the winter classes. The trustees denied the student’s claims, and Rocha denied the decision to put the teacher on leave was retaliatory. The teacher has been reinstated to the college, but not to the journalism program. 


Rocha and the board rankled students even more by eliminating the winter intersession without going through the shared governance process.


A judge later ruled that the college must reinstate the winter intersession and pay back wages to teachers who would have taught those classes. Last month, the Board of Trustees once again voted against the winter intersession.


In April, faculty members slammed Rocha in a survey that included three open-ended questions: “What is working?” “What is not working?” “What are suggestions for positive change?”


Most respondents felt “nothing” was working. Of the remaining two questions, the most common response was the president’s leadership was not working and that removing Rocha would result in positive change.


That same month, a foreboding memo allegedly written by Rocha called “beginning of the beginning of the end” at PCC said the school was beginning to “devolve.”


The memo was a response to the Chancellor’s Scorecard, an annual progress report on the state’s 112 junior colleges. According to the scorecard, 52.5 percent of students transferred to a four-year university or completed a degree or certificate program, and 43.6 percent were still taking remedial classes in math and English. The college is also struggling with competition from the Los Angeles Community College District, which recently upgraded its campuses with the help of a $6-billion construction bond. 


 In May, the college administration faced more criticism after Rocha opposed plans for Academy-Award winning screenwriter and 1994 PCC alumni Dustin Lance Black to deliver the commencement address at the school’s graduation ceremonies.


Rocha opposed the selection after learning that a tape of the gay rights activist having unprotected sex surfaced on the Internet five years ago. In an email, Rocha said he was worried about the negative publicity that information could cause. 


Black was victimized by someone who had stolen the video and posted it online without Black’s knowledge. The writer was eventually awarded $100,000. Black was later re-invited to speak and gave the commencement speech.


Rocha left for vacation immediately following the commencement ceremony.


“I just don’t understand how our Board of Trustees allowed him to stay on as long as he did,” said languages Professor Melissa Michelson.


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