Opinion » Commentaries

Help maintain the community's investment

Local voters created Cuesta College, and the school needs voters again to take the school into the future



Dear community members:

To fully understand where Cuesta College is today, I need to start from the beginning.

I came to Cuesta College as a 26-year-old man in 1967, three years after the college was created. I was a math teacher and football coach, working on what many today consider the “old campus.” We worked out of leased Camp San Luis Obispo barracks with cows grazing throughout the campus. It didn’t take long for our newly sprouted community college to grow out of its humble dwellings and, in 1968, the Cuesta Board of Trustees asked the community to help build permanent facilities that would better support our students. So a general obligation bond was placed on the ballot for $11 million. Needing two-thirds approval by the voters, it didn’t pass. But the board didn’t give up, as our needs didn’t go away. In November of 1970, we came back to the community and asked for a $5 million bond. That bond was approved, and soon after the first permanent buildings began to appear, including the physical education shower and locker rooms, as well as the science complex, which today continues to house our physical and biological sciences programs. But as we grew, our needs did, too. So in June of 1974, Cuesta went out for another bond in the amount of $8.5 million. The voters turned down that bond, but, once again, we didn’t go away. A few months later, Cuesta put a bond of $8 million on the November ballot, and it passed. The funding was used to complete the basic campus structures, including engineering and technology, business education, language arts, social sciences, fine and performing arts, and library learning center.

That was the last time Cuesta College passed a general obligation bond.

Today, two-thirds of Cuesta College’s buildings are more than 40 years old. Our college has done its best to plug the leaking roofs, patch cracked concrete, and repair deteriorating machinery. But it has been 40 years, and our need to repair and upgrade our facilities has grown exponentially.

So why has it been 40 years since Cuesta passed a bond? There are a multitude of reasons, but the main one was the two-thirds voter approval threshold. In 2000, the voters approved Proposition 39, which lowered the required approval to 55 percent. The college attempted a bond in 2006 that, truthfully, failed miserably. Many voters felt that that bond was too big, not clearly understood by the voting public, and not well supported by the internal college constituent groups. That bond measure would have addressed the major repairs and upgrades that are still present, but at a far lower cost to the public. Soon after,  in 2008, the college entered into a period of accreditation crisis, and the state of California plummeted into a fiscal crisis. It was during this time, in 2009, that I was lured out of retirement and assumed the position of Cuesta College superintendent/president.

During those challenging years, the college was in no position to seek a general obligation bond. It was also during those years that the state reduced Cuesta’s revenues by $10 million, which included eliminating funding for deferred maintenance and capital improvements. Cuesta began having to use substantial amounts of general fund monies—intended for educational programs, student support services, and personnel costs—to pay for the upkeep and repair of its aging facilities and infrastructure. Additionally, state funding per student continues to be reduced. Currently, Cuesta receives $5,597 per full-time equivalent student, versus $12,506 per student that our state universities receive.

But I am very proud to say that conditions are improving. With a heroic effort of the faculty, staff, students, and administrators, as well as a newly formed leadership team, the college turned the corner and our accreditation status was reaffirmed in February of 2014. The budget climate in California is improving, and Cuesta has made exciting strides in improving its goal to support students and their success. Most recently, we launched the Cuesta Promise, a scholarship for every recent San Luis Obispo County high school graduate, promising a free first semester. In fact, we will welcome our very first class of “Promise students” this fall, about 900 so far, saving each about $800.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that Cuesta College is in dire need of funding for capital improvements.

And we are not alone.

Out of the 72 community college districts in the state of California, 65 have passed bonds over the last 12 years—nine of which passed over the last two years. Some, like Contra Costa County Community College District, are on their third consecutive bond. Others, like Los Angeles Community College District, passed bonds amounting to more than $4.74 billion. It has become apparent to all the community colleges in California that general obligation bonds are simply a way of business in today’s changing economic world.

So—we are one of seven districts not currently being supported by a general obligation bond. What does that mean to our students?

It means that instead of spending money on state-of-the-art lab equipment for successful programs like nursing—which boasts a nearly 100 percent pass rate on state exams—we are spending money on purchasing new air conditioners.

It means that instead of spending money on upgrading our technology to include things like wireless Internet and more online course offerings, improvements that will prepare our students to enter the modern working world with a competitive edge, we are spending money on repairs to the power grid (which has failed four times in the last two years) so that we can simply keep the lights on.

It means that instead of spending money on providing our students and community with the first-class Cuesta College educational experience they expect and deserve, we are spending money on simply keeping the campus from crumbling.

Our needs are urgent, and it’s time for Cuesta College to seek voter approval for the passage of a bond.

For the past year, we have been working with a consulting firm to assist the college’s Board of Trustees in determining the feasibility of whether the voters in San Luis Obispo County would support a bond this November. In October of 2013, a preliminary survey was conducted of 600 county voters. The results of the survey were very positive: 69 percent would support a bond measure of $347 million, which is the maximum that our Board of Trustees could ask for. This is well above the 55 percent margin required for passage.

During the spring and summer months of 2014, we spoke with community groups and organizations to share the successes, developments, and challenges that Cuesta College faces and how a bond fits into the solution. Residents in the county have also received multiple mailings on the subject and are again being polled via telephone.

It is important to know that a general obligation bond for community colleges is limited to a maximum of $25 per $100,000 of assessed property value; in San Luis Obispo County, this would yield a bond maximum of $347 million. However, the Board of Trustees is currently reviewing seven different options ranging from $84 million to $343 million, which would produce a tax rate of approximately $6.05 to $24.71, respectively. Details on each option are available to the public on the college’s website.

So here is where the board stands today: They agree that the district needs a bond to bring the college buildings and infrastructure up to industry and educational standards and meet all of the safety and energy requirements present. However, the board is still deciding on the appropriate amount for a bond that would be adequate to fulfill the basic needs of the college, yet be mindful of the impact on voters. Their current stance is somewhere between $250 million and $286 million (tax rates would be approximately $18.02 and $20.61, respectively).

The Board of Trustees will have the opportunity to take action on the bond at a meeting on July 29 at 4 p.m. on the San Luis Obispo Campus in room 5401. We encourage the public to attend and provide their comments and suggestions. If the college does move forward with a bond, we must submit the ballot statement to the County Clerk Recorder’s Office by Aug. 8.

So there you have it. Cuesta College, the little school that was formed via the voters of San Luis Obispo County in 1963, is now looking again to the voters of the county to help maintain and improve the investment in education made more than 50 years ago. With your help, we hope to write a new chapter in the college’s history.


Gilbert H. Stork, Ed. D., is superintendent/president of Cuesta College. Send comments to the executive editor at [email protected].

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