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A new chancellor takes the lead at the financially-troubled Peralta college district

on November 6, 2019

When Dr. Regina Stanback Stroud filled out her application for Howard University, she didn’t know what box to check.

Not liberal arts. She couldn’t draw.

Not fine arts. She wasn’t a singer.

She hesitated on “university without walls,” a fluid major that allowed students to design programs in different departments and study abroad. But she didn’t know that at the time. She had no experience with higher education, so she took it literally. She wrote: “too cold to study outside.”

At the beginning of her lengthy higher ed career, Stanback Stroud said she was “educationally unsophisticated.” Today, she has more than three decades of experience in community college teaching and administration, including ten years as president of Skyline College in San Bruno. And as of October 21, she has a new line on her resume: chancellor of the Peralta Community College District.

The four-college district is made up of Laney and Merritt colleges in Oakland, Berkeley Community College and the College of Alameda. Together, the four serve more than 30,000 students, offering associate degrees, certificates and transfer programs in subjects from American Sign Language to nursing. Tuition and fees at the community colleges are markedly lower than surrounding private and public four-year institutions—tuition for California residents at all four campuses is just $1,232. The colleges offer flexible programs, including online and evening classes to accommodate students who work full time during the day.

A 2017 enrollment study, conducted by the Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges, requested by Peralta’s assistant vice chancellor of enrollment management, showed that the highest portion of the student body—37.2 percent—is between 19 and 24 years old, but 22.1 percent are older than 35. Approximately 21 percent of the student body is Black. The same study shows that the percentage of students enrolling in non-traditional online classes is increasing exponentially.

Stanback Stroud, a Black critical race scholar, has devoted her life to community colleges, because she says she believes “education should not be preserved for the elite.” In fact, she thinks everyone should have access to higher education, just as they have access to free high schools. At the very least, she believes, the first two years of college should be free.

“I come from the segregated South, where education is seen as the key to overcome, as a combatant to mitigate issues of exclusion and domination and marginalization,” said Stanback Stroud, who now lives in Oakland. “Education gives you the practice of freedom.”

But her appointment to the chancellorship by the district’s board of trustees is just one of the significant changes the district is undergoing. This Spring, the state’s Fiscal Crisis & Management Assistance Team (FCMAT) came to the district at the request of the statewide Chancellor of Community Colleges and Peralta administrators. FCMAT works with K-12 schools and community colleges throughout the state to analyze and make recommendations about their financial solvency. The team, headed by FCMAT Deputy Executive Officer Michelle Giacomini, conducted interviews and collected data throughout the system for several. At the end, the team members reported some “serious concerns” about Peralta’s finances.

Giacomini said the report was one of the hardest she’s had to write in her 18-year career with FCMAT, given the complexity of Peralta’s issues. It wasn’t the first time she’d done a report on the district—she led an analysis into Peralta in 2012. This time, she said, it didn’t look to her like a lot of progress had been made.

The report’s findings noted outdated technological systems, a sharp enrollment decline at three campuses—two of which had increased faculty numbers during the same period—and several vacant financial administrative positions, including an internal auditor, accountants and the vice chancellor of finance, a position the district is in the process of filling.

In February, after requesting the FCMAT report, the previous Peralta chancellor, Jowel Laguerre, submitted his request for early retirement, following Laney and Berkeley City College’s faculty senates’ decisions to issue votes of no confidence in his leadership.

A drop in enrollment can cause financial troubles for a public school system. Because community colleges are public, they receive funding from the state based in part on student enrollment figures. Over the last five years, enrollment has dropped by 2,261 full time students systemwide, with Laney College seeing the most acute losses, according to the FCMAT report. The systemwide 2019-20 budget, adopted by the board of trustees, shows expected expenditures of nearly $155 million systemwide, with expected revenue at just over $153 million. The FCMAT report stated that “without fundamental changes,” the district may “become insolvent or require emergency appropriations from the state.”

The report’s authors also highlighted the need for infrastructure repairs. According to the report, district officials had only allocated $500,000 to facilities for 2018-19, which the report states is “insufficient to address the significant facility maintenance needs.” The report’s authors noted that their analysis team encountered elevators that were out of order, doors with missing locks, malfunctioning fire alarms, broken air conditioners and missing fire extinguishers.

“The district budget includes only a small amount for facility needs. Because of the volume of unauthorized purchases, which result in severely delayed payments to vendors, they reported declining work at the district,” the report concluded.

The report’s authors made clear that these assessments were taking place at a particularly difficult time for the district, as Laguerre had stepped down and the interim chancellor was tasked with addressing the concerns outlined in the report.

The report’s authors brought forth 75 recommendations, 22 of which called for new hires. According to Acting Chancellor Frances White,as of September, the district’s administrators had completed 19 of the recommendations and were working on 23.

In White’s final online report as chancellor, she laid out what she and her administration accomplished in her months on the job, filling in before Stanback Stroud was hired. They filled vacant leadership positions in the district’s General Services and Marketing and Communications offices, adopted a finalized annual budget that established a 10 percent reserve and created a Recovery, Accountability and Sustainability Action Plan, which they presented to the California Board of Governors in mid-September.

“It’s an exciting time for Peralta if they truly take the recommendations that have been given,” Giacomini said in a phone interview. “They have more than enough recommendations down on paper as a blueprint to really try to fix things, but that’s the tricky part. They have to fix it.”

Giacomini said having a new permanent chancellor is “a good first step.” She said the district needs stable leadership in order to address these issues. The agency will likely do a follow up as early as a year from now.

For many, the report didn’t come as a shock. Enrollment in community colleges has been down statewide over the past several years, as is typically the case when the economy is doing well, according to Dr. Larry Galizio, the president and CEO of California’s Community College League. When the economy begins to go south, and people have a hard time getting and holding onto jobs, community colleges tend to experience increases in enrollment.

California’s community college system is the largest public higher education system in the United States, with 2.1 million students and 115 colleges. But Galizio emphasizes that the system receives the least funding per student of any education sector in California. As of 2017, community colleges received approximately $7,000 per student compared to the University of California (UC) system’s $8,000 per student and the California State University (CSU) system’s $9,000.

According to the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonprofit research organization,about 12 percent of the state’s general funds are allocated to higher education—meaning the funds are split between the UC system, CSU system and California Community Colleges. As this percentage has declined over the past few decades, the UC and CSU systems have drastically increased tuition costs. But community colleges have been partially insulated by Proposition 98, which voters passed in 1988. This ballot initiative put a floor on how much the state must invest in K-14 education, a category that includes community colleges. Students at the community colleges are responsible for paying their tuition and fees, but many at Peralta schools receive grants to offset their costs, such as the College Promise Grant—which eliminates enrollment fees for students who apply through federal financial aid or have demonstrated need based on income or disability status.

Peralta’s financial situation, while partially attributable to statewide trends, is particularly acute due to years of mismanagement, according to the FCMAT report. The turnover in leadership within the district’s finance department “has been ongoing and frequent,” the report states, and representatives from the department do not communicate with the individual colleges when creating budgets. The report says that colleges are allocated yearly budgets without regard to changes in the previous year, like the loss of full-time students.

“What’s hard about FCMAT reports is that we don’t talk about everything that’s going right,” Giacomini said. “We spend our time on really what needs to be fixed, so the reports can come off very negative. But that’s where we want to put our time as far as making recommendations of how to improve things.”

Still, Giacomini said, the reports can be demoralizing for people within the district. “It’s very difficult because you know that with every word and every recommendation, the district needs to fix more things. And that’s really hard on the students and the staff and everybody else who are doing a really good job every day, but it’s not enough.”

Oakland North contacted all of the Peralta trustees, as well as former Acting Chancellor White. None were available to comment on the FCMAT report and the conditions it outlines.

But one group remains vocal about the report’s conclusion: the teachers’ union. Jennifer Shanoski, president of the Peralta Faculty Union,has spoken out about Peralta’s issues in the past, particularly its facilities. “All you have to do is walk around, and you’ll see that our facilities are antiquated, they’re dirty, they’re ugly, they’re unwelcoming,” she said. “Just chose your adjective.”

Jeff Sanceri, a history teacher at the College of Alameda, approaches the facilities issue with a little bit of levity. “There’s a plate glass window that’s had a piece of plywood on it for so long, I think it’s registered for classes,” he said wryly, adding that people have started using the plywood as a bulletin board.

He said the College of Alameda has fewer facilities issues than other campuses, “but we still have leaky classrooms,” he said. “We have broken windows. We have mold in our classrooms. I mean, it’s all very weird. It’s like a 1980s movie high school. One of the sad ones.”

Stanback Stroud has reacted to the FCMAT results calmly. “Yes, Peralta does have some issues, just like many, many community colleges do,” she said before her contract was approved October 8. “But from my perspective, this is not rocket science.”

“I say this all the time—we’ve seen this movie before,” she said. “We know how to do this work.”

In fact, she points out, the Peralta administration had initially requested thereport from FCMAT, as well as one from Collaborative Brain Trust, a national consulting firm that specializes in community colleges. “Peralta has welcomed all of that feedback,” Stanback Stroud said.

In April, before Stanback Stroud took office, district administrators had already developed a five-year fiscal plan, spanning 2019-24. In the document’s preface, then-Acting Chancellor White pointed to larger economic trends that have put stress on Peralta’s finances. “The recent recession, followed by a growing and thriving economy has resulted in a drastic rise in the cost of living and a concurrent drop in student enrollments in the Peralta Colleges,” she wrote in the report. “This has also contributed to such challenges as executive turnover, audit findings and a structural deficit in the District budget.”

The plan outlined steps the district had taken to enlist outside help, including from FCMAT, which was already in the midst of its field investigation, and from Collaborative Brain Trust.

The plan also called for a system of regular assessments of student achievement, which Mark Johnson, spokesperson for the Peralta district, said will lead to increased state funding under the new statewide “Student Centered Funding Formula.” The new system means the state will factor both overall enrollment and student achievement into its budget decisions.

Johnson added that other aspects of the five-year plan, including a desire to eliminate overspending and reduce the district’s deficit, will be addressed after vacant seats on the district’s finance team are filled.

Johnson said it’s going to take some time for the district to get back into good fiscal health. “There’s not a magic wand that can be waved,” he said. “It’s going to take work by everybody at the district—it’s going to take work by the trustees, it’s going to take work by the administration, by the faculty and the staff.”

Johnson’s hiring was part of White’s strategy to increase enrollment. His expertise is in digital marketing, one of the areas where she wanted to focus resources. Johnson is tasked with enhancing the district’s website and using social media and digital ads to showcase the schools and drive enrollment.

When he started at Peralta three months ago, he did a full assessment of the district’s digital presence. The district’s website hasn’t been updated since around 2012—”which is a long time in internet years,” he said—and it’s not mobile-friendly, so students likely aren’t using it. Johnson said he’s preparing to present his assessment and plan to the board of trustees so he can get his campaigns started.

“The reason I’m here is because there’s a lot of promise at the Peralta colleges, and as an organization, I think it’s fair to say we’re under-delivering our service to the community right now,” Johnson said. “But there is a tremendous opportunity to right the ship and provide a fabulous service to the community. And I think that Dr. Stanback Stroud is going to help us lead that turnaround.”

Stanback Stroud grew up in a segregated town in North Carolina, and she said although her family was interracial, her community and life were not. The first six years of her education were spent at an all-Black school. After that, she was part of a group of students who attended a desegregated elementary school. Her mother, who hadn’t received a formal education, wanted all of her kids to go to college. So, with funding from the GI Bill—her father died in the military—Stanback Stroud went to Howard University to study nursing. She became a registered nurse, and while working with students at a teaching hospital, she found that she loved teaching ad-hoc lessonsto the nursing students.

She began her career as a nursing professor in 1983, working at Craven Community College in North Carolina. She soon relocated to California, and over the next few decades she took on various leadership roles in the community college system.

Her roles included terms as a dean at Mission College in Santa Claraand president at Skyline College in San Bruno,as well as a term on former President Barack Obama’s Advisory Task Force for Fiscal Capabilities for Young Americans. She put her expertise as a race scholar—she had gotten her master’s degree and Ph.D. in educational leadership at Mills College—at the center of everything she did. At one point, she said, she halted a hiring process at Skyline College because the finalists did not reflect the diversity of the college. She asked the hiring committee to examine its outreach practices to get to the bottom of why the candidates skewed so white.

Also when she was president at Skyline, she pointed out a problem with the registration process that was putting lower-income students at a disadvantage. In the years immediately after the Great Recession, she said, the school was offering fewer classes. The registration system was supposed to be “first come, first served,” but the system went online at midnight. That meant that students who didn’t have internet access or computers at home would have to wait until the next day for library or school computers to open up. Because it was an issue of having enough resources—and money—to have the technology at home, Stanback Stroud knew it was a problem of inequity.

“That’s a good example of nobody’s meaning to do anything wrong. Nobody’s trying to be discriminatory,” Stanback Stroud said. “But just our regular practices are creating systems where people are marginalized because of the resources they may or may not have.”

Stanback Stroud, after working for more than 30 years in community colleges, retired from the presidency at Skyline this Spring. She said she enjoyed her taste of retirement, of “not having to be anywhere or do anything.”

She spent two months in Paris with her wife, Linda Collins. But later this summer,the very first day they were back home, Stanback Stroud got a call from Brice Harris, who used to be the California Community Colleges chancellor. He asked her to take a look at the chancellor position at Peralta. “I said to Brice, ‘Brice, let a sister have one day of retirement,’” Stanback Stroud said with a laugh. “Just one day.”

But ultimately, she embarked on an intensive application process, which included interviews with trustees, and one long day when she went from campus to campus to take part in five consecutive town halls with the other finalist.

“Oakland is my home. And every day for 19 years—at the risk of sounding immodest—I took all of this talent and expertise across that bridge,” Stanback Stroud said, referring to her commute to San Bruno during her time at Skyline. And what they’re saying is that our community needs attention, and maybe I have a contribution to make. So I decided to apply for the position.”

Late this September, the board of trustees selected her.

Stanback Stroud said the chance to lead Peralta was worth her coming out of retirement. The schools serve an important role as major transfer and workforce development institutions, she said, and they “serve their community right.”

“I think Peralta is a phenomenal district. It has colleges that mean something to this community,” Stanback Stroud said. “You can’t walk around this community without meeting somebody who is impacted by—or knows somebody who’s impacted by—those colleges.”

During her first week on the job, Stanback Stroud went from campus to campus, meeting with faculty and administrators to ask them what her priorities should be. Monday morning, she spent three hours with her cabinet—the advisory group that consists of the district’s vice chancellors, each college’s president and the executive director of public information. According to Johnson, Stanback Stroud has already transformed the way the top district officials communicate—she even assigned background research readings to them. (Lackluster communication among higher-ups was one of the big critiques in the FCMAT report.)

But one of her biggest tasks that first week was attending her first board of trustees meeting, wherescores of faculty, including union members, showed up to speak out about their ongoing contract negotiations.

The district and the Peralta Federation of Teachers have been in contract negotiations since December, 2018. The teachers are asking for a cost of living adjustment to their wages, and for the district to raise hourly rates for part-time workers to match the rates of their full-time colleagues.

Faculty members entered the meeting carrying signs that read things like “EQUAL PAY FOR EQUAL HOURS” and chanting “PFT! PFT!”, the shorthand for Peralta Federation of Teachers.

Shanoski, from the teachers’ union, said the district would need to spend just over $1 million to achieve parity between full-time and part-time workers, and that the state accounts for cost of living adjustments in its annual funding. “We’re not asking for a lot,” she said.

She added that, until a new contract is settled, the teachers’ previous contract rolls over, so no one is able to get a raise.

At the outset of the meeting, trustee Bill Withrow said he was dismayed that there were no items on the agenda related to the FCMAT or Collaborative Brain Trust reports, nothing on enrollment and nothing on student success metrics. “This should be all-hands,” he said.

Throughout the public comment period, which took up the first hour of the meeting, Stanback Stroud sat across from the podium and attentively listened as teachers and faculty members spoke. She took notes and nodded her head, and smiled warmly each time she was addressed directly.

Then it was time for Stanback Stroud to introduce herself to the audience and give her first report to the board, a recap of the positive things that had happened in the district since the board had last met: Berkeley City College had been recognized as a state leader in transfer associates degrees, a sophomore volleyball player from the College of Alameda was nominated for a state scholar athlete award, Laney College hosted a regional machine tech conference the weekend before, and Merritt College had a visit from Road Trip Nation, an organization that helps students navigate their career options.

As she spoke, Stanback Stroud told the board and audience that she felt extremely optimistic about the role, and that joining Peralta has been “a tremendously pleasant experience.” Still, she acknowledged in her opening joke, which got quite a few cheers from the audience: “Yesterday was the first day of work, and I felt like I had jumped on a treadmill that was already on and set at the ‘run’ speed.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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