Despite Protests District Pushes Saudi Arabia Education Deal

Board Meeting / Trustees along with former Santa Ana College’s ASG president Raquel Manriquez. / Joanna Meza / el Don

Board Meeting / Trustees along with former Santa Ana College’s ASG president Raquel Manriquez. / Joanna Meza / el Don

District Foundation pushes Saudi Arabia education deal despite protests

By Jose Servin and Joanna Meza

Despite facing a potential lawsuit from faculty, Rancho Santiago Community College District’s fundraising foundation plans on finalizing a controversial multi-million dollar deal with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The RSCCD Faculty Association sent a cease and desist letter to various members of the district foundation, including Chancellor Raul Rodriguez, on April 16, giving them 30 days to terminate the deal or face a lawsuit.

With the deadline approaching, Enrique Perez, the foundation’s executive director, said there are no plans to halt the Saudi deal that could be worth up to $120 million.

There are plans to ratify the deal May 12 at a foundation meeting with their legal counsel present, Perez said.

Faculty leaders accuse the foundation of violating the spirit of open communication.

“The details of this agreement have been presented in the vaguest terms, similar to everything else when it comes to communication and transparency with this district,” said Barry Resnick, FARSCCD President, at a Board of Trustees meeting April 28.

Records obtained by el Don through the California Public Records Act for foundation meeting minutes from 2011 to present show no evidence of discussions regarding Saudi Arabia except for a brief mention of a trip to San Francisco by Perez and Rodriguez to meet with representatives from Saudi Arabia.

The Feldhake Law Firm, which represents the foundation, initially released public records of agendas and meeting minutes from 2010 to 2012. Two weeks later, they released agendas and minutes from 2012 to present.

A review of Internet archives culled from the foundation’s website shows that meeting dates, agendas and minutes weren’t posted until about March 17, a week before faculty spoke against the deal at a Board of Trustees meeting.

“If you listen to what the chancellor and the college presidents say, the minutes don’t reflect everything they say. But I’m telling you this was discussed many times by the chancellor at board meetings,” RSCCD Trustee John Hanna said.

“If you took out the name Saudi Arabia and put in Israel and that was our program, most of the faculty wouldn’t be in opposition, [but] you’d have a whole other group of people, as you do throughout this country, who don’t want to enter to any kind of agreement, whether artistic,cultural, educational, with Israel,” Hanna added.

Rodriguez and Perez have been the most vocal defenders of the Saudi deal. Both are on the board of directors for the International Consortium for Educational and Economic Development, a group of leaders from Canada, the United States and Mexico focused on international education and economic development. ICEED’s website lists its offices as being on the fourth floor of the RSCCD Building.

Perez has traveled to India, China and Saudi Arabia multiple times on behalf of the foundation, according to foundation agendas dating back to 2011.

Perez is the only member on the foundation that works 40 hours a week, according to the foundation’s 990 tax forms. Perez also serves as the assistant vice chancellor for the district. Perez receives no compensation for his foundation work, but earns about $154,000 a year as a district employee.

The Faculty Association is accusing foundation officials of failing to uphold the Brown Act by not holding public meetings, not posting meeting times at least 72 hour in advance for the public to see and failing to publicly report action taken in closed sessions.

The Ralph M. Brown Act guarantees the California public’s right to attend and participate in legislative meetings.

Public records indicate that trustees approved a $5,000 partial payment for development services to international consultant Christopher Mackie involving a failed bid to win a contract with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 2013.

Trustee Hanna said he was not aware of having voted for that.

The payment to Mackie was placed on the agenda as a non-descript purchase order along with Smart & Final, Office Depot and other miscellaneous bills, Resnick said in a statement on behalf of FARSCCD.

Mackie’s consulting contract was not used in the current deal with Saudi Arabia, Perez said, but the money was still approved by the Board of Trustees and used towards doing business with Saudi Arabia. The contract with Mackie regarding consulting services lists RSCCD as a partner with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The foundation is not mentioned in this contract.

The Board of Trustees has also been accused of ignoring the spirit of open communication.

In 2013, the board was accused of violating open meeting laws over labor negations in 2013. They followed a cease and desist order on behalf of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Southern California without admitting to Brown Act violations.

“In order to avoid unnecessary litigation and without admitting any violation of the Ralph M. Brown Act, the Board of Trustees of the Rancho Santiago Community College District hereby unconditionally commits that it will cease, desist from, and not repeat the challenged past action as described above,” Trustee President Larry Labrado said on behalf of the Board.

As of press time, Rodriguez has not responded to requests for comment.

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