Five of the six community colleges in the Tri-Counties came under fire in early February as the regional accreditation agency issued the latest in a string of negative report cards. The worst report went to San Luis Obispo County’s Cuesta College, now in danger of closing if it doesn’t improve its educational standards.
Santa Barbara City College and the Ventura County Community College District are under scrutiny because of administrative issues, with fingers pointed at their boards of trustees.
Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria was the only institution not to face scrutiny at some level. Its accreditation was last reaffirmed in June 2010.
Losing accreditation would mean losing state funding. It also means students at the unaccredited schools would no longer be eligible to receive financial aid or transfer credits to universities.
Stephen Blum, the board chairman for the Ventura County Community College District, said 37 percent of the state’s community colleges are facing disciplinary action. Just one two-year college has actually been stripped of its accreditation, but Blum said the administration in his district needs to take the commission’s recommendations seriously.
“There are systematic changes coming down the pike in the way the state’s community colleges are run. The greatest is that the accreditation committee has more teeth than it used to. Colleges have been slow to realize that, so they’ve been slow to take the commission as seriously as they should,” Blum told the Business Times.
Cuesta College, the smallest of the region’s community colleges with about 8,000 full-time students, has been in the hot seat since 2009, when the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges Western Association of Schools and Colleges placed it on probation.
The agency, which evaluates two-year colleges across the state, warned the campus to make certain changes and pointed out nine areas where the school needed to improve. According to a news release, Cuesta officials responded at that time by hiring qualified administrative workers, approving a new technology plan and updating a master educational plan for the future.
But when the commission paid Cuesta a follow-up visit in November, it said the school had failed to meet the requirements. On Feb. 3, the agency sent the college a letter directing it to show why accreditation should not be withdrawn.
This time, it warned Cuesta that the school will lose its accreditation within the next year if it doesn’t improve in three key areas: planning and assessment, technology resources and financial planning and stability.
“I view this as a serious but temporary setback,” Cuesta president Gil Stork said in a statement. “We will work with the commission to sort out the details of their remaining recommendations, develop and implement our plan of action, and I am confident that we will resolve these issues.”
Ventura County’s three community colleges — Ventura, Oxnard and Moorpark — have been placed on probation, but not because the campuses are failing to meet academic benchmarks. The accreditation commission sent a letter on Feb. 6 to district chancellor James Meznek stating that the board of trustees wasn’t adequately governing the schools.
“The team expressed concern about the consistency and long-term sustainability of the Board’s demonstration of its primary leadership role, and reiterates its recommendation for evidence of ongoing professional development for all Board members,” the letter said. “Specifically, the Commission notes a particular board member’s disruptive and inappropriate behavior, and the entire board’s responsibility address and curtail it.”
Though the letter doesn’t name the board member, the Ventura County Star reported that several sources said the trustee is Art Hernandez, who has spoken out against budget cuts at Oxnard College. Last year, the commission recommended that the board participate in team development activities.
Hernandez missed one of the mandated meetings, which is probably the disruptive behavior noted in the commission’s letter, according to the Star.
Blum, the board chairman, said he agrees with the commission’s report. “It’s like a test, and we got a bad grade. What they pointed out is pretty accurate. Basically, the district has problems getting along. We need to learn, as an institution, to make good decisions in a collaborative way,” he said.
In Ventura, the district has until March 15 to write to the commission about what it’s doing to improve. Cuesta is set to submit a progress report to the commission in October.
At Santa Barbara City College, the board of trustees is also the subject of controversy surrounding the campus. The school, which was named one of the top 10 city colleges in the country by the Aspen Institute this year, received a letter from the accreditation commission on Feb. 6.
The letter is a follow-up to the agency’s campus visit last fall, when it investigated the board of trustees for alleged noncompliance with dismissal procedures. The investigation came after the board placed former college president Andreea Serban on paid administrative leave without revealing the cause. A complaint was sent to the accreditation commission alleging the board was out of compliance.
SBCC is not revealing the contents of the letter because it is a draft and not a final report, the school said in a statement. Once the commission makes a decision, the report and findings will be made public. “The College has thirty days in which to make a confidential response to the draft. The Commission will not render any decision until it has received and considered the College’s response,” the statement said.