Dis­trict nears OK of Saudi con­tract

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Ruben Vives

An Or­ange County col­lege dis­trict foun­da­tion moved closer to ap­prov­ing a con­tro­ver­sial con­sult­ing con­tract worth an es­ti­mated $ 85 mil­lion to help run two tech­ni­cal schools in Saudi Ara­bia.

The pro­posed deal has been crit­i­cized by fac­ulty mem­bers and oth­ers who say that it was bro­kered in near se­crecy and who ques­tioned do­ing busi­ness with an ab­so­lute monar­chy with a spotty hu­man rights record.

Dur­ing a board meet­ing Tues­day af­ter­noon in Santa Ana, the Ran­cho San­ti­ago Com­mu­nity Col­lege Dis­trict Foun­da­tion di­rected at­tor­neys to re­turn with a f inal draft of the con­tract for fi­nal ap­proval, which of­fi­cials say could hap­pen within 30 days.

For months, some fac­ulty mem­bers have com­plained the pro­ject has been cob­bled to­gether in vi­o­la­tion of the Brown Act, the state’s open meet­ing law. Sep­a­rately, two non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tions, the Anti- Defama­tion League and the Zion­ist Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Amer­ica, have sent letters ex­press­ing con­cerns about op­er­at­ing schools in Saudi Ara­bia, where schools are seg­re­gated by gen­der, among other things.

Chan­cel­lor Raul Ro­driguez said he hopes rev­enue from the deal, or oth­ers like it, will help sup­port dis­trict projects and stu­dent pro­grams.

“This is our busi­ness model that we’re try­ing to fol­low and who knows if we’ll be suc­cess­ful, but we’re try­ing,” he said.

“I guess we picked the wrong coun­try to start with,” he added, jok­ingly.

Crit­ics said the board kept the pro­ject un­der wraps un­til Barry Res­nick, pres­i­dent of the dis­trict’s fac­ulty as­so­ci­a­tion, and oth­ers started ask­ing ques­tions. Dis­trict of­fi­cials ac­knowl­edge that there were vi­o­la­tions of open meet­ing laws that they had to rec­tify.

A re­view of the board’s min­utes and agen­das over the last two years show that although the board of­ten dis­cussed stu­dent re­cruit­ment projects in coun­tries such as China, there was scarcely any men­tion of the Saudi Ara­bia pro­ject un­til re­cently. Dis­trict of­fi­cials said there was ini­tially con­fu­sion about whether the open meet­ing law ap­plied to the dis­trict’s foun­da­tion, a non­profit.

“The de­ci­sion pre­vi­ously was that it didn’t ap­ply,” said Robert Feld­hake, a foun­da­tion at­tor­ney. “We ad­vised it did and cor­rec­tive steps were taken.”

Ac­cord­ing to records, the f irst men­tion of some­thing in­volv­ing Saudi Ara­bia was made in March 2014 in a ref- er­ence to a planned trip to San Fran­cisco by Ro­driguez and another board mem­ber. The next men­tion hap­pened a year later, in March, when Res­nick asked about the pro­ject dur­ing a board meet­ing.

On May 12, in an ef­fort to cor­rect the vi­o­la­tions of the open meet­ing law, the board pub­licly ap­proved a se­ries of items re­lated to the pro­ject, in­clud­ing pay­ments, a Fe­bru­ary con­sult­ing con­tract and Jan­uary agree­ment let­ter signed by Ro­driguez, who is also a foun­da­tion board mem­ber.

Jes­sica Levin­son, a pro­fes­sor at Loy­ola Law School who spe­cial­izes in good gov­er­nance, said even if it was an hon­est mis­take there are con­se­quences to vi­o­lat­ing open meet­ing laws.

“The public is in­jured when there is a Brown Act vi­o­la­tion like this,” she said. “The public is de­prived from tak­ing part in their gov­ern­ment’s de­ci­sions.”

The con­tract pre­sented at Tues­day’s meet­ing was a slimmed- down ver­sion of the orig­i­nal agree­ment, which was ex­pected to pro­duce an es­ti­mated $ 105 mil­lion in rev­enue for the foun­da­tion over f ive years. Of­fi­cials say the new con­tract re­duces that amount by $ 20 mil­lion.

Ro­driguez said that un­der the pre­vi­ous con­tract, the foun­da­tion would have been re­spon­si­ble for mak­ing up­grades at the Saudi Ara­bian schools, such as by in­stalling el­e­va­tors and set­ting up Wi- Fi net­works. That no longer will be the case, he said.

Ro­driguez said that the dis­trict’s pri­mary role in Saudi Ara­bia would be to con­sult, help train fac­ulty and set cur­ric­ula for the two all- male schools.

Dur­ing the meet­ing Tues­day, Feld­hake said that the col­lege dis­trict it­self would not face a li­a­bil­ity from the deal, as crit­ics have said. He also said a pro­vi­sion in the con­tract would en­sure that fed­eral and state laws were not bro­ken by op­er­at­ing schools in Saudi Ara­bia.

But Res­nick said of­fi­cials should seek an in­de­pen­dent le­gal opin­ion.

“Do you re­ally think an ac­tion brought in a Cal­i­for­nia court would not name the dis­trict as well as the foun­da­tion?” he said.

Some board mem­bers said they stood by the deal.

“Iso­la­tion and bar­ri­ers do noth­ing to build bridges across cul­tures or ef­fect change,” said board mem­ber Ari­anna Bar­rios. “The foun­da­tion’s pro­ject with Saudi Ara­bia pro­motes ed­u­ca­tion, cul­tural un­der­stand­ing and will fa­cil­i­tate pro­gres­sive change.”

Todd Litfin, another board mem­ber, said he sup­ported the pro­posed con­tract be­cause the col­lege dis­trict can use the fi­nan­cial boost.

“I work in gov­ern­ment and I’m acutely aware of state f inances ... and I know the fu­ture is bleak,” Litfin said. “So any ef­fort in which the dis­trict can get some f inan­cial ben­e­fit from this type of ar­range­ment is pos­i­tive be­cause the dark night for Cal­i­for­nia is com­ing and peo­ple on the lo­cal level bet­ter have backup plans or al­ter­na­tive sources of rev­enue.”

Pho­tog r aphs by Allen J. Schaben Los An­ge­les Times

RAN­CHO SAN­TI­AGO Com­mu­nity Col­lege Dis­trict Foun­da­tion board mem­bers last week dis­cuss a pro­posed con­tract worth an es­ti­mated $ 85 mil­lion to con­sult, help train fac­ulty and set cur­ric­ula for two all- male schools in Saudi Ara­bia.

BARRY RES­NICK, pres­i­dent of the dis­trict’s fac­ulty as­so­ci­a­tion, voices his op­po­si­tion to the deal.

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