A longtime leader in the Los Angeles Community College District is poised to lose his seat on the district’s Board of Trustees.
Ernest Moreno, a Republican and frequent critic of the district and how it spends its money, trails challenger Sara Hernandez by an overwhelming 22 points in initial returns.
Mail-in ballots are still coming in, and counting in the race resumes Friday, but Moreno conceded Wednesday when the gap was insurmountable. He accepted the loss in a phone interview Wednesday.
“This is the first time I’ve ever lost an election. And so I don’t know what to say,” he said. “It’s abundantly clear that the voters really are not informed about the real nature of the [issues].”
All six of Moreno’s colleagues on the board endorsed Hernandez, a Democrat and former Los Angeles City Hall aide who drew endorsements from dozens of labor unions and political groups representing Democrats.
Moreno, who served as president of East Los Angeles College for more than 15 years before being elected as a trustee, said he feels the board has lost sight of managing costs.
The community college district’s $5.3-billion bond proposal also appears headed for passage. The measure would add to the more than $9 billion in bond measures Los Angeles voters have approved for campus construction over the last two decades. Moreno objected to the measure.
The Los Angeles Community College District — like other districts throughout California — faced significant enrollment drops during the pandemic, but the state continued to fund it at pre-pandemic enrollment levels. Critics say colleges will face severe shortfalls when those protections are lifted in a few years.
“Instead of discussing how we’re spending money and why we’re spending money on items and how expensive it is,” Moreno said, “we’re discussing issues of racial equity and activism and honoring groups of people.”
Hernandez, a land-use attorney who also teaches a constitutional law class at Los Angeles Valley College, said she decided to run for the trustee position precisely to address issues of educational equity. That involves building a community college system that helps lift people out of poverty and prepares them for changes in the workforce, she said.
“We need people who are willing and able to really think critically about how we change with the times,” she said.
Finding solutions for students who are couch-surfing, sleeping in their cars or struggling to pay rent is a top priority for Hernandez, who was once an aide to former Los Angeles Councilmember Jose Huizar and worked on issues in skid row.
“This is a way to make sure that we are removing barriers from students so that they can succeed in higher education,” she said.
Three other board incumbents — Steven Veres (Seat 2), Gabriel Buelna (Seat 6) and Kelsey Iino (Seat 7) — are ahead handily in races for the other trustee seats on the ballot.
As of the incomplete count Wednesday, the construction bond proposal, which needs 55% approval to pass, had garnered 60% of voter support.
Moreno, the only trustee who voted against placing the measure on the ballot, called it irresponsible to spend so much money on campus infrastructure when enrollment is down and about half of classes are online.
“In some ways we’re ransoming the future of the [schools] when maybe those dollars should be made available for future building programs, when and if we need them,” he said. “We don’t need them now.”
Moreno was also a critic of waste and construction defects during earlier campus construction. In 2011, The Times uncovered widespread nepotism and mismanagement in projects financed through bonds.
More recently, an independent arbitrator ruled the Los Angeles Community College District must pay a construction company $3.2 million after the district violated state requirements for “good faith and fair dealing” in construction projects.
District administrators vowed they have improved program oversight, ordering independent financial audits and creating new watchdog committees.
Money from the $5.3-billion bond measure would go toward modernizing buildings constructed before the 1970s, installing new technology in classrooms and improving lighting and other infrastructure.
“What we see these resources doing is providing exceptional teaching and learning environments for our students,” said Francisco Rodriguez, chancellor of the Los Angeles Community College District.