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Former Cuesta College executive questions $275 million bond 

Letter to the editor

By William Benjamin
Former Executive Director of Human Resources at Cuesta College

former cuesta employee questions bond measure L

Cuesta College is asking the property owners of San Luis Obispo County to pony up more property taxes to finance a $275 million dollar bond, for the next 34 years. Their justification is to repair, “Leaking roofs, failing air conditioning and heating units and a swimming pool that will soon no longer meet regulatory requirements,” “… meet a state mandate to make modular buildings safer by replacing them with permanent classrooms, upgrade technology, build a job and career training facility in the North County, and eliminate or refinance millions of dollars in debt from past construction and campus upgrades.”

According to the President, Gil Stork, “This is not about expansion, not about building for the future, it is about protecting the public’s investment of what we have right now.” So if this bond includes no plans for future construction, does that mean Cuesta will be coming back for another bond before this one is paid off? Given the status of state financing, the only way to finance any such future construction would be through additional property taxes.

Before you vote, you may want to examine the Sept. 27 article in the Tribune a little more closely. Having viewed it firsthand, there’s no doubt that Cuesta’s crumbling buildings and infrastructure are in need of some major repair and replacement. One has to ask, why wasn’t this a priority in the last bond, instead of new construction? That new construction was never paid off and the voters are now being asked to refinance it as part of this new bond (approximately $21 million dollars in past debt). Who’s been watching the fiscal store these past years? The swimming pool is a case in point. The liner is constructed of aluminum and has been deteriorating for years, leaking thousands of gallons of water every year. Why wasn’t any money appropriated from the last bond or from state allocations or use fees to create a replacement fund?

The replacement of modular buildings on the North County campus in Paso Robles is even more interesting. The State of Califonia mandated that all modular buildings at K-12 schools and community colleges be removed by 2006. The legislature then granted an extension, allowing them to be retained until 2015. The modular buildings on the North County campus and the main campus in SLO are military surplus. They did not meet the Division of the State Architect’s requirements for safe classrooms then, and they don’t now. They were erected under an exemption that allowed for local building codes to supercede the DSA requirements. However, in reviewing the various options for remodeling or replacement, Terry Reece, Director of Facilities Services, Planning and Capitol Projects, reported to the Board of Trustees that an examination of the buildings revealed that they don’t even meet local building codes; some of them are not even anchored to their foundations. Therefore, they are not even fit for occupation. Why has it taken all these years to discover this and why have students and staff been put at risk?

Toni Sommer, Vice President of Administrative Services, who serves as the Chief Financial Officer of the District and oversees the construction and maintenance programs, has presided over the financial operations of the college throughout this entire period. While other employees were experiencing salary freezes, furloughs, and layoffs, many of her staff received salary increases and promotions. Recently, she was reported to the California Fair Political Practices Commission for failing to disclose financial interests. Only in response to the complaint did she file a Statement of Economic Interests, reporting a lavish dinner, attended by her and her husband, including $100 bottles of wine, given by a College vendor at Cannery Row in Monterey in December of 2012. Yet, according to documents submitted to the Fair Political Practices Commission, she had never previously reported any such conflicts of interest, despite the fact that she attends several such meetings or conferences per year and sits on several Boards, all of which receive financial support from vendors. Last year she purchased a home in Idaho and announced her intention to sell her home and business in Paso Robles and retire to Idaho next year. Recently, she has escalated her retirement plans and her position at the College is now listed as open. Did the FPPC investigation or Equal Employment Opportunity litigations, in which she was named, prompt her to retire early? If so, that may be a blessing. Is this the kind of leadership you want overseeing bond construction, financed with your taxpayer dollars?

The article further states that, “Enrollment had dropped 30 percent in the past four years, largely in response to state budget cuts and its struggle with accreditation.” Other colleges, such as Allan Hancock, have experienced comparable budget cuts yet continue to grow and retain their accreditation. Cuesta was placed on warning and then “show cause” by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges, the final step before closure by the state, which most likely would have resulted in a takeover by Allan Hancock. That put Cuesta in the same situation as Compton, San Francisco, and College of the Redwoods.

The problem started in 2008 when Cuesta wrote a self-deprecating report which put ACCJC on notice. It failed to take the necessary steps to correct the cited deficiencies and slid further and further towards the abyss. In response, newly appointed President Dr. Stork recommended the termination of Dr. Cathleen Greiner, the Vice President of Academic Affairs, who also served as the Accreditation Liaison. Greiner, who saw herself as a scapegoat for the college’s problems, threatened to sue, and a deal was finely worked out to buy out the remainder of her contract and guarantee her a positive reference for future employment. The buyout cost the College over $350,000. She subsequently secured a position as a Dean at an Orange county college district.

Meanwhile, enrollment continued to decline. Back in 2008 when the problems began, the college inexplicably cancelled its entire summer schedule, resulting in a significant loss of revenue. In a panic move to increase enrollment and meet the quota for state dollars, the college decided to gamble on an expanded summer session for 2013. Despite the increase in enrollment, errors in accounting for student registrations resulted in the college failing to meet its target, causing it to lose hundreds of thousands of dollars. These accounting errors were the failure of a number of staff members in the Student Services and President’s office, however neither they nor their supervisors suffered the same fate as Dr. Greiner.

Another factor in ACCJC’s decision to place Cuesta on warning and show cause was its lack of “administrative capacity.” At the time of the self study in 2008, Cuesta had been through two short-term Presidents and employed two of the three Vice Presidents and an Executive Director as interim appointments. Oddly, in 2014 when show cause was removed, the college had two different interim Vice Presidents and two interim Deans and an interim Executive Director. Among the current Cabinet, composed of the President, three Vice Presidents, two Executive Directors, and four Deans, the President and two of the Vice Presidents are all internal candidates who only recently became “permanent,” having served under the previous failed regimes, while one of the Deans never held a comparable position prior to Cuesta, one is from out of state, the remaining three have resigned their positions after serving one year or less and one of the Executive Directors is an interim retiree. It would seem that Cuesta’s “administrative capacity” is even more meager than when they were cited in 2008. Moreover, many of the aforementioned individuals have been named in Equal Employment Opportunity complaints and lawsuits within the past couple of years; actions which are still under investigation or litigation.

Dr. Stork is credited as saying that Cuesta is “working on” programs to enroll more students. Due to the generosity of an anonymous donor, Cuesta received a gift of several of millions of dollars in investments, which allowed it to offer tuition-free registration to all graduating seniors in the county, under the “Promise” program. This desperate measure to increase enrollment is a great gift to the students, many of whom are eligible for other forms of financial aid, but generates nothing in revenue.

“Measure L has been endorsed by the college’s faculty and classified unions and by the Associated Students, Academic Senate and the Management Senate.” Given that neither the faculty, classified staff, or managers have received any cost of living adjustments or other raises, other than the mandated annual step increases, while the administrative assistants to the President and Vice Presidents and other favored employees have received raises and promotions within the last two years, this is surprising. Many employees have received no increases of any kind since 2008, a fact that is largely responsible for the failed negotiations with the faculty and classified unions since their last contracts were ratified in 2011. Both unions are currently working under expired contracts. The failure of the College to negotiate in good faith is one factor which caused the faculty union to withhold support for the previous bond measure in 2006.

The case for needed repairs and improvements to Cuesta College is pretty clear. But what the taxpayers need to ask themselves is whether this is the leadership they can trust with their money. Property values and taxes in San Luis Obispo are already high. Do you want to gamble your hard-earned dollars on a College administration which has shown itself incapable of managing its finances? The Cabinet serves at the discretion of the President who, in turn, reports to the Board of Trustees, which is an elected body. You can make your opinions known to the Board through the President’s office.

Submitted by William Benjamin