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Lee Hilliard vs. COC

| News | September 19, 2019

Lee Hilliard prides himself on doing the unexpected, causing discomfort to those who oppose him.

When College of the Canyons didn’t do what he had hoped, he filed a grievance. Soon after, he got what he wanted: Two classes will be taught in the spring, with the hopes of attracting high school students to grow his program.

“I do things that come out of the blue, and I’m in a place that makes them uncomfortable,” he said. “They worry now about if they do something, what am I going to do? My responses don’t fit the pattern. I know how to play. I don’t like to play, and you’ll be sorry if I do.”

Hilliard is the chair of the Telecommunications and Electronic Systems Technologies (TEST) department, and he has, at least since November 2016, felt the administration has not supported it. He filed a complaint November 21 of that year alleging conditions “have created a working environment that can only be described as intolerable and this warrants filing this formal complaint.”

The conditions included replacing a full-time instructional lab technician with two part-timers, which Hilliard said forced him to resign from several committees to devote time to training them. This was critical, he said, because the college and the William S. Hart Union High School District had won a $5.5 million grant from the California Career Pathways Trust to get Career Technical Education (CTE) programs into the high schools, which serve as job training.

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Hilliard saw this as an opportunity to grow his struggling programs in computer networking and electronic systems. Never the less, he was convinced the administration didn’t support him.

“The district is no longer providing the resources necessary for the TEST department to meet the district’s goals of Teaching and Learning and Technological Advancement,” Hilliard wrote. “With the addition of another full-time faculty member and the department working on scheduling classes off campus, Pathways Grant, the need for the qualified full-time instructional lab technician is greater than ever.”

Hilliard attempted to create the curriculum, only to have it rejected. Eventually, the plan called for offering a four-course series with each class acting as a prerequisite for the next one. The classes were designed by Cisco Networking Academy, and Hilliard had to go through a certification process to teach them. His idea was that students would take the introductory courses during high school and then enroll at COC to take other more advanced ones, leading to an increase in enrollment in his department and, by extension, the school. Also, completing the courses would lead to an industry certification and big-money jobs, he said.

The classes were offered at Golden Valley High after school and were open to adults and students from all area high schools. The first one, a fundamentals class covering the theory of computer networking, began in the fall 2017 semester with 10 students.

But Hilliard was worried the first class would be too boring for high school students, and he was right. Only two students signed up for the second class, on routing and switching essentials, so it was canceled.

Hilliard suggested a different class, about computer repair, should be taught first the following fall.

“They would have taken the computer apart. They would have been familiar with it,” he said. “It might have been of a little more interest to them than the class that did not succeed.”

He also wanted to do away with the prerequisite requirement. But the dean, Harriet Happel, told him that, because the grant mandated which classes could be taught, the same one had to be taught again. Happel didn’t return a call for comment; school spokesperson Eric Harnish emailed to say the school doesn’t comment on personnel matters.

“The grant was not written for a specific course sequence,” Hilliard recently said. “It was written for the entire networking program. … She has no expertise in the field.”

So, Hilliard ran the fundamentals class again for the fall 2018 semester at Golden Valley. Eleven students signed up, including five in high school. Come spring 2019, only two signed up for the second class, leading to another cancellation.

But this time, one of those two students, David Theroux, discovered that the cancellation prevented him from completing the pathway. In an email addressed to Happel dated Jan. 28 that Hilliard provided, Theroux inquired about arranging to possibly take the class online. “I have over 20 years of experience and was just hoping to get this class,” he wrote.

Happel responded by saying she would see what she could do. But on Jan. 31, she emailed Theroux, “At this time, we cannot offer you the option of taking (the next class)” and promised to “continue to explore options to help you complete this pathway.”

Reached Monday, Theroux, now 53, said he wanted to obtain his Cisco certification to advance his career. Instead, “I just had to abandon the entire pathway. I got really frustrated. I was really doing well. I got a 4.0 grade point average. There was no reason why they couldn’t find something else for me. They wouldn’t do anything.”

Upset, Hilliard went to Faculty Association President Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, who suggested in an email, “I think it may be time to reopen the complaint process.”

Vice President of Academic Affairs Omar Torres told Hilliard he had to run the same class a third time. If he didn’t, it would be pulled from the schedule. Hilliard chose to pull it.

The grant ended June 30. But that hasn’t stopped Hilliard from attempting to grow his program. “My enrollment is down,” he said.

He tried again, this time suggesting two classes, on the internet of things and the python programming language – which he would have liked to have had taught at the high schools – be taught at COC for the fall 2019 semester. But first he had to come before the curriculum committee.

Whenever a teacher wants a new class added, he or she first must request it be placed on the committee’s agenda and then secure committee approval. The teacher must make two appearances before the committee, first to justify why the class is necessary, beneficial, important, etc.; and the second to have the curriculum approved.

Hilliard said he submitted his request early this spring. But when he asked Articulation Officer and Curriculum Analyst Patrick Backes about getting his classes on the agenda for this year, he said Backes told him, “I thought you meant for next year.”

“I knew he was told to say that,” Hilliard said.

Miffed, he instructed his attorney, Martha Torgow, to file a grievance, dated May 28, a copy of which she sent to the Gazette. Hilliard alleged the school refused to place his classes on the curriculum committee agenda and that the administration is going beyond its role in developing programs and curricula.

He also referenced the multiple class cancellations at Golden Valley, and he sought the following remedies: that his classes to be placed on the next agenda, that they be added for spring 2020, that they have appropriate marketing and advertising, and that he receives “the flexibility to plan the curriculum to adapt to changing industry needs and to schedule courses to meet student needs.”

This second grievance earned him an Aug. 16 meeting with his union representative and Torres. Torres promised the classes would be ready by fall 2020, but he would do everything possible to have them ready by spring 2020.

The next curriculum committee meeting, scheduled for Aug. 22, had his justification listed on the agenda. Hilliard thought following committee meeting, Sept. 5, would simply be a continuation of his justification. He asked Backes if he needed to be there and was told no. But Committee Chair Lisa Hooper said he should attend, so he did and was surprised to see the meeting was to finalize the curriculum. Torres, Backes and Hooper didn’t return calls.

The classes were approved for spring 2020 and will be in the catalog. Hilliard said these would be college classes for now, but he hopes to attract high school students, too. Theroux said IOT and python classes would interest him, but he fears if he starts again, the next class would be canceled, as he experienced the last time.

Hilliard also has another meeting scheduled with Torres and his union rep to discuss how to improve the department. He knows he got his way for now, but what happens going forward is unknown.

“I know I’m a pain in the butt and I do things nobody expects or anticipates, and I come out of the blue,” he said. “I’m curious to see if anything of actual value gets helped or if it just continues to be lip service.”

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About Lee Barnathan

Lee Barnathan has been a writer and editor since 1990. His articles have been published in newspapers, magazines and online. His new book "If You Experience Death, Please Call and Other Fatal Mistakes We Make With Language," a humorous look at the ways people misuse English, is available on Amazon or at his website, www.leebarnathan.com. He is hired by people all over the country to help them refine the message or story they wish to share with their target audience or demographic.

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