It’s a sad day when the prestigious and well-respected community college district is at risk of losing public support when the trustees are unable to publicly state what is going on and what has happened. That is because it is a personnel issue which they cannot discuss and also because they signed an agreement to more or less keep their mouths shut. And they had hoped by doing this it would protect the district from adverse publicity.
This we do know. After 20 years of service, extraordinarily long for a community college chancellor, a majority of the San Mateo County Community College District board decided it was time for new leadership. Ron Galatolo had accomplished much. He had established the Promise Program which helps limit the cost of education by offering books, food and other services at a reduced cost to students needing additional financial assistance. He oversaw the creation of an affordable staff housing development on campus. Under his watch, the district passed bond and parcel tax initiatives to improve facilities. Not surprising, major contributors to the campaigns were developers and contractors involved in the building program. That is not unusual. What is rumored and yet to be proved is that some of these vendors also financially rewarded the chancellor.
But before that became an issue, all was not perfect. Under his watch, the district’s attempt to sell its TV station in an auction ended badly with the district not getting an appropriate amount. Also many administrative positions remained unfilled and he had not provided a clear line of succession. And in 2012, he was the subject of an NBC investigative report which found he had wined and dined with his district credit card (Not atypical for many administrators both in the private and public sector). But it was against district policy.
He announced his retirement Aug. 12. At the conclusion of the next trustees meeting, Aug. 21, officials from the District Attorney’s Office marched into the board room and issued a search warrant for the chancellor’s computer and other documents. The allegations, still to be proven, revolved around harassment and improper handling of construction contracts. The district attorney will determine whether to open a full-blown investigation which could lead to criminal charges.
The investigation was the result of a whistleblower’s complaint.
When Galatolo retired, he was supposed to work on establishing a California State University branch at Canada Community College. But after the district attorney’s investigation began, he was removed from district business.
However, according to his termination, which was without cause, he became emeritus which meant he would receive his full salary, $467,700 a year plus benefits for two years and then be separated from the district. All of this is very difficult for the public to understand and accept. But the board had little choice. They can’t discuss details. Nor can the district attorney beyond the official charges. Galatolo has yet to be proven guilty.
And the trustees were hoping to have these unpleasant events not smear the district and wanted to keep the dirty laundry private.
As a former school board trustee, I know what it is like to have a longtime admired employee removed from his job because of a police investigation and not be able to fully discuss the details in public. In this case, it was easy for us to terminate the employee because it was sexual misconduct. Community college chancellors have special protections in the law and, while they serve at the pleasure of the board, termination may not be a quick and easy process. Still not being able to share the facts raises more questions.
We won’t know the full story until the District Attorney’s Office completes its investigation, and maybe not even then. In the meantime, the district has started a nationwide search for a new chancellor. Michael Claire, president of the College of San Mateo, is serving as interim. Let’s hope this starts a new chapter and our prized community college district can move forward.
Sue Lempert is the former mayor of San Mateo. Her column runs every Monday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.