One year after taking over as president of Glendale Community College, Tessa Martinez Pollack is under fire from faculty senate members who question a proposed policy that cost her her previous job in Miami, Florida.
Her economic-development proposal for the west Valley has also raised questions about what role her husband may play in it.
The Maricopa Community College District board, which oversees 10 community colleges across the county, picked the 48-year-old Martinez Pollack in September 1996 to replace outgoing college president John Waltrip, who was retiring after 20 years.
Martinez Pollack, one of about 100 applicants to apply for the $116,000-a-year job, walked into an institution which had experienced little administrative upheaval during the two decades preceding her arrival--a campus where faculty had grown accustomed to having its say in college policy.
Waltrip, during his two decades as president, had endeared himself to teachers by taking stands against the district on their behalf, resisting changes which, he felt, undermined the college's traditional mission of classroom education.
But Martinez Pollack and Waltrip come from opposite ends of the educational spectrum. Waltrip's heart was in the classroom and, before becoming GCC's president, he had been both a teacher and a faculty activist.
Aside from brief stints in the classroom, Martinez Pollack never has taught, serving as an administrator her whole career. If there was any doubt at GCC where the new president's allegiances lay, she put them to rest shortly after arriving on the campus.
First, Martinez Pollack slighted faculty members by ignoring their input about who should speak at a commencement ceremony. Then she began telling the faculty that GCC was out of step with the community's needs.
Martinez Pollack unveiled an ambitious social agenda, announcing that the college would team up with various agencies, including the city, to help rehabilitate an economically depressed section of Glendale.
Dubbed "The Rectangle Project," the program would seek to provide financial assistance to low-income first-time homebuyers, and establish a community center providing a host of social services.
GCC faculty association president Carl Samuels was the first to formally question Martinez Pollack about the project, and about her past.
Martinez Pollack came to the Valley from the Miami-Dade community-college system, where she served as president of the five-college system's medical center, which offers instruction in health-related fields.
While at Miami-Dade, Martinez Pollack became one of the prime movers behind a high-profile campaign to force the college to help rehabilitate a hard-pressed area of Miami called Overtown.
The Overtown Project, as it came to be known, was launched around 1993 amid strong civic support. But by 1996, after a series of political upheavals in Miami, leaders began to take a second look at Overtown.
Critics had begun to say that the college--and the community--had precious little to show for the effort. Martinez Pollack eventually was forced out, but not until after Miami-Dade had sunk more than $600,000 into Overtown.
At the time of Martinez Pollack's ouster, Miami-Dade was operating on an $11 million budget deficit. While faculty there say Martinez Pollack can't be faulted for the deficit--she only headed one of the five campuses in the entire system--they do blame her for trying to foist her civic agenda upon them.
"We saw her role, indeed the role of any president or administrator, as this: Make it possible for us to go into the classroom and do the best jobs possible," says Miami-Dade faculty senate representative Pamela Singer. "I don't think she viewed it like that. I think she wanted us to follow her lead unquestionably, to go out into the community, to act as social workers. And I don't deny that there's a need for that kind of thing, but the fact is, this is a school, and we are teachers--not social workers. This is where our responsibility lies."
According to minutes from an April faculty meeting, Samuels' first question for Martinez Pollack was, "Were either you or your husband involved in building the public housing [in Overtown]?"
"No," Martinez Pollack replied, according to the minutes.
In an interview last week, Robert Pollack said he had helped develop "about 40" low-income homes in Overtown. He added that he helped develop "about 3,000" units of affordable housing in Dade County for about 20 different nonprofit organizations before he moved to Arizona with his wife--a much different picture from the one Martinez Pollack presented at the faculty senate meeting in April.
Robert Pollack now works as a public-housing consultant with the City of Tucson. The position is funded through a two-year grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
According to the minutes, Martinez Pollack told the faculty that while her husband served as an unpaid board member for the Glendale Community Housing Development Organization--one of the nonprofit agencies involved in the project--neither of them would make any money on the Rectangle Project.
Martinez Pollack also told the faculty, according to the minutes, that GCC "was the educational, not the financial leg" of the Rectangle Project.
Until recently, that appeared to be the case. Much of the project was to have been financed through a $4 million grant from the Kellogg Foundation. The Kellogg grant application, which still is pending, does not show GCC pledging any of its own money.
But another grant application to HUD--made available to the faculty only last week--shows GCC shouldering much of the project's financial burden. HUD recently awarded the grant to another bidder, not GCC.
Still, documents show Martinez Pollack had intended that GCC contribute hundreds of thousands of dollars to the project. In June, two months after the meeting with the faculty senate, Martinez Pollack signed off on a $400,000 grant application to HUD in which she pledged about $800,000 in matching funds from GCC over the next three years to get the Rectangle Project off the ground.
More than half of that money would have been used to pay teachers who would be pulled from the classroom, along with their students, to work in the community--a prospect which faculty leaders find particularly alarming.
"It's not her job to come in here and dictate curricula, which is essentially what she is trying to do," says one teacher.
Martinez Pollack also estimated that she would have spent about 10 percent of her time--valued at $40,000 over three years--running the project.
When asked during an interview to comment about the matching funds, and whether pledging them contradicted her earlier statements to the faculty senate, Martinez Pollack said:
"I don't remember an $800,000 match. I mean, you could get in touch with somebody else to get the details on that."
The match, though, is spelled out repeatedly in the 72-page HUD grant proposal, as well as on the application form at the very front--a form Martinez Pollack signed and dated on June 17.
The $241,000 balance of the matching funds would come from the other agencies who have signed on to the project, one of which is the nonprofit Glendale Community Housing Development Organization, on which Robert Pollack serves as an unpaid board member.
Glendale CHDO head Mike Fitz, whose letter of endorsement appeared in Martinez Pollack's grant application, did not respond to a request for an interview. For their part, the Pollacks say the arrangement is strictly aboveboard.
"My understanding of a conflict of interest is that someone will benefit financially," Martinez Pollack said. "Robert serves on the CHDO board as an unpaid volunteer, so how can there be a conflict?"
Robert Pollack's serving in a position in Tucson funded through a grant from HUD--the same agency to which his wife has applied for a $400,000 grant--while also serving on the board of one of the nonprofits that would help administer that grant money has not gone unnoticed among the project's critics on the GCC faculty.
"Frankly, we don't know what it means," says one faculty member. "It could be nothing. But it does seem like a rather strange coincidence."
Maricopa Community College Chancellor Paul Elsner, who supports Martinez Pollack's plans to boost GCC's community profile, said he didn't know anything about the HUD grant.
As for Robert Pollack's position on the CHDO board and whether that would be a conflict of interest for his wife, Elsner said he "didn't see how it could be an issue."
Even before news of the HUD grant began to sweep the GCC campus, some on the faculty senate were calling for a halt to the Rectangle Project.
In a September 13 letter to her fellow senators, GCC faculty senator Gay Garesche wrote that Martinez Pollack's responses to Samuels' questions during the April meeting had left her "with the impression that she had not been involved in that [the Overtown] project."
Garesche also wrote that Martinez Pollack's projects in Miami had cost her school a "significant" amount of money, and that the experience should not be repeated at GCC, which is experiencing a funding crunch because of declining enrollment.
"It is my intention to propose at the next Senate meeting that no further college resources be used for the project and that faculty be encouraged to participate in the project on a volunteer basis on their own time," Garesche wrote.
The faculty has also invited Martinez Pollack to answer follow-up questions at a special meeting to be held October 16. Martinez Pollack has not said whether she will attend that meeting.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.