Jeff Jardine

Political race, racist attack start week off with thud for YCCD, MJC

In this 2014 file photo, former Modesto Junior College president Jill Stearns greets graduates during the school’s 92nd annual commencement ceremony.
In this 2014 file photo, former Modesto Junior College president Jill Stearns greets graduates during the school’s 92nd annual commencement ceremony. Modesto Bee

The political race is over and three incoming Yosemite Community College District board of trustees members are ready to pick an interim successor to retiring Chancellor Joan Smith at a special meeting today. They might not be allowed to, though.

Meanwhile, on Modesto Junior College’s East Campus, an alleged racially motivated attack against two Hispanic students and white racist posters glued to buildings have students, faculty and administrators frustrated.

And that was just through Tuesday, in what has thus far been a tumultuous week for the district and the college. The discord could continue at noon today on the West Campus, when newly elected board members Leslie Beggs, Jon Rodriguez and Darin Gharat could find themselves watching outgoing board members go into closed session to choose the interim chancellor they will direct after formally being seated for the Dec. 15 meeting.

Consequently, they want the outgoing board to delay the selection so they can make it, and who can blame them? It should be the new board’s call – not the outgoing board’s, and not affected by Smith or anyone else.

“I think that ultimately the next chancellor will be taking direction from the new board,” Rodriguez said. “So the new board should be doing the voting.”

After Stanislaus County elections chief Lee Lundrigan certified the election results on Monday, Beggs – who won her Area 6 board seat with an overwhelming 80 percent vote – asked district officials to revise the agenda to include seating the incoming members. Smith responded by telling her that unless four of the seven board members instructed Smith to do so, she couldn’t direct district Counsel Gina Leguria to revise the agenda without violating the Brown Act.

Beggs argues that state Education Code 5017 states board terms begin on “the first Friday in December next succeeding his or her election.” But it also states that “Any member of the governing board of a school district or community college district whose term has expired shall continue to discharge the duties of the office until his or her successor has qualified.”

“We’re certified,” she said. “That makes us qualified.”

Across town, MJC President Jill Stearns and others are trying to learn more about an alleged attack by a white male who punched a Latino woman in the arm while shouting “You don’t belong here, that’s why Trump is going to build a wall!” as she and another Latino student crossed Stoddard Avenue at noon Monday. They reported the incident to campus security officers, who asked them if they wanted to file a report with the Modesto Police Department. They declined, but later changed their minds, went to MPD headquarters downtown and spoke with investigators.

Around that same time Monday, someone glued numerous posters displaying Nazi signs, pro-white propaganda and anti-Muslim sentiments to walls on the music building, Founders Hall, the electronics and journalism buildings – apparently in broad daylight.

An email Stearns sent Monday afternoon to faculty and staff members dismayed some of them because it didn’t strongly renounce the racist activity they say increased throughout President-elect Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and emboldened some on campus even more so since he won the election.

In fact, Stearns’ initial email didn’t directly address the racist posters at all. She listed the alleged assault almost as an afterthought, after a heating/AC breakdown in the Forum Building and that someone had set off a fire alarm in Founders Hall, forcing evacuation of the building where 400 students were in class a week away from semester finals. Stearns told me she simply didn’t have enough information about the assault at the time to go into greater detail.

As for the posters, she said she found them online but knows nothing about the site – reactionamerica.com – that posts them for downloading.

“All I know is what I found via Google,” Stearns told me.

No one from the school informed the Modesto police about the posters, department spokeswoman Heather Graves said. Tuesday afternoon, the school issued a new statement. Like Stearns’ original email, it detailed the code of conduct prohibiting discrimination, bullying, verbal intimidation and other transgressions. Curtis Martin, president of the Yosemite Faculty Senate, said he isn’t sure how else she could have reacted.

“Some wanted her to come out swinging,” Martin said. “But free speech is protected. The two posters I saw were clearly from a white racist site. One of them mixed racism and the Cold War. I’ve been advising my colleagues to not jump to any conclusions.”

Indeed, MJC and the district began the week with a couple of trying days, and they’re only at the halfway point.

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