By Patrick Mullen and Gil Stork on June 22, 2012
Last month, Cuesta College trustees were asked to consider hiring a consultant to poll whether voters would support a local bond measure on the November ballot. On June 6, the Board of Trustees rejected the idea, not because the college is not in need, but because we think the time is not right to ask voters for money.
San Luis Obispo County residents continually remind us how important Cuesta College is to the vibrancy and health of the Central Coast. Thousands of community members along with their children, spouses, co-workers, neighbors and friends have benefited from the quality of programs and services, the access and availability of classes, and the relative low cost amid today’s climate of increasing public higher education costs. We continue to appreciate and be inspired by the local support and investment in Cuesta College.
In February, the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, Western Association of Schools and Colleges directed us to show why Cuesta’s accreditation should not be withdrawn. The commission faulted the way we conduct and assess our planning — not on the quality of education our students receive. In addition, they questioned the college’s financial planning and stability. Our faculty, staff, students and administration have been keenly focused on efforts to reaffirm our accreditation status.
Considering when to seek a bond measure is an important part of our job. In the 1960s, when the college operated out of rented, World War II-era barracks on Camp San Luis Obispo property — which occasionally leaked and flooded in winter rains — it took three tries over three years to pass a $5 million bond ($29.6 million in today’s dollars) to build a new campus. A few years later, as the campus continued to grow, college officials proposed another bond. It took two elections in 1974 to get voters to approve the $8.5 million bond ($39.5 million in 2012 dollars) to complete the original college campus.
Funding college needs changed drastically after the passage of 1978’s Proposition 13, which froze property taxes and eliminated Cuesta’s ability to pass community service taxes. The statewide measure sent the college’s budget into a tailspin as trustees scuttled programs (including football) and on-campus construction all but ground to a halt. State bond measures helped Cuesta officials meet some new facility needs over the next decades. This meant the college did not have to seek a local bond measure to pay for needed improvements.
In 2006, campus officials thought the time was right for the first local bond in 32 years. Overall, Measure G sought $310 million to build 17 new buildings that would have provided students the 21st century technology, classrooms and science labs needed for job training and successful transfer to four-year universities. The remaining balance would have paid for needed repair of leaky roofs, decaying walls, sewer systems and outdated electrical systems.
The measure failed. Critics’ objections had more to do with the amount of the bond and the lack of clarity of the projects to be completed than the overall need for additional funding. Like any home approaching 50 years old, Cuesta continues to need repairs, renovation and modernization. A bond is in the college’s immediate future.
But as in life, timing is everything. This fall, we’ll be encouraging county voters to support Gov. Brown’s California Sales and Income Tax Increase Initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot. This will help community colleges like Cuesta avoid further drastic reductions, which have already denied access to more than 3,000 students, while narrowing the state budget deficit.
Because of cutbacks from Sacramento, Cuesta had to carve an additional $3 million from the budget for the upcoming 2012/13 fiscal year. If the governor’s measure fails, the college will need to trim another $2.4 million. This reduction will result in having to eliminate approximately 200 more class sections. It would be a devastating cut that would drastically affect our ability to serve students and the community.
Cuesta College has significant financial needs. Our current fiscal difficulties have been exacerbated by the Great Recession and forced reductions from the state. While we are not seeking a local bond at this time, we are preparing to possibly do so in 2014.
It’s not a matter of if the college will need a bond measure, but when.
• Patrick Mullen is president of the San Luis Obispo County Community College District Board of Trustees. He has served on the board overseeing Cuesta College since 2005. Gilbert H. Stork is the superintendent/president of Cuesta College and a longtime San Luis Obispo resident. He has been on the staff at the college since 1967.