Cuesta College could be closed if accreditation requirements aren't met by November

acornejo@thetribunenews.comFebruary 6, 2012 

Cuesta College has until November to fix problems noted by the agency responsible for accrediting community colleges or it will lose its accreditation and possibly face closure, school officials announced Monday.

The college must improve in three key areas — planning and assessment, technology resources, and financial planning and stability — or its accreditation will be revoked.

It must also make preparations for closure, as required by the commission, should the college fail to meet the requirements. In that process, the dissolution of the college and its resources will be explored, Cuesta President Gil Stork said.

“We will not let this particular blemish influence the way we perceive ourselves or the way the community perceives us,” Stork said. “We want to reassure our students that this college is not going to abandon them in their pursuits.”

Cuesta’s accreditation remains intact while the college defends its status, called “show cause.”

Accreditation is the process used for evaluating an institution and ensuring quality education, according to the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges.

Losing accreditation is one of the biggest setbacks a college can face and could mean that other colleges might not accept the courses or transcripts of enrolled students.

No one with the commission was available for comment Monday.

Stork said Monday that losing accreditation would trigger a loss of state funding and could mean imminent closure of the school.

He was also resolute that Cuesta would address the commission’s concerns to prevent that from happening.

“I could not be prouder of any other institution in the state of California,” Stork said.

In California, the most recent community college to lose accreditation was Compton College around 2006. It was then taken over by a neighboring district and turned into a satellite campus.

Cuesta College has been struggling to retain its accreditation since 2009, when it received an initial warning by the commission that it was not sufficiently meeting nine required standards.

A year later, Cuesta was put on probation status for failing to fulfill recommended improvements in areas of strategic planning, lack of sufficient staff to provide administrative services, technology resources and financial planning.

Despite a number of improvements made by Cuesta administrators and staff, the college failed to address all of those concerns again in 2011 and was kept on probation for the three areas that it was told Friday it has still failed to meet:

Planning and assessment

What the commission said: Cuesta’s key operating plans are not updated thoroughly and are not connected to each other enough. Examples include the 2010-13 strategic plan, the 2011-16 educational master plan and most recently a technology plan.

What Stork says: The college has yet to complete all of the required plans, but it is on target to do so. “We couldn’t do five or six plans in one year,” Stork said. He said he was seeking further clarification from the commission to determine whether it was the plans compatibility or the completion of them that triggered the failure to meet the recommendation.

Technology resources

Commission: Cuesta had not yet adopted a technology master plan when the accrediting team visited, and funding to support upgrading technology was not clearly defined.

Stork: The school’s Board of Trustees adopted the plan last week and has identified a possible source of revenue through Medi-Cal administrative activities. Stork said Monday he expects about $50,000 in new revenue from that plan to be applied annually toward technology needs. That money will not be enough for the large technology upgrades required on campus. Additional funds will have to be sought by a bond and associated property-tax increase or by asking the Cuesta College Foundation for private fundraising help, Stork said.

Financial planning and stability

Commission: The college was faulted for not directly linking its finances to future plans. The commission also said Cuesta relies too much on short- and long-term borrowing to deal with cash flow shortages.

Stork: The college currently operates on a five-year budget projection. The outstanding debt the college carries, for past and current construction projects, is being paid. “We need to verify that we are still able to sustain our current debt and plan to meet those obligations and it is not destroying the college,” Stork said. The only way to rid the college of the long-term debt is to tie it into the outcome of a bond, Stork said. The earliest date the college would consider putting a bond measure and associated property-tax increase before voters would be November 2014, he said.

Stork said he will seek the help of outside consultants to assist the college in determining the exact gaps that remain to be filled. He will also work with a technical assistant provided through the accrediting commission to pinpoint exactly where Cuesta College is falling short.

Stork said he will reach out to two other community colleges that faced the same sanction as Cuesta College and were successful in maintaining their accreditation.

Pat Mullen, president of the Cuesta College board, said he believed that the accrediting commission overlooked a number of substantial improvements already made by the college.

“This is the highest priority for the Board of Trustees,” Mullen said in a statement. “The board will be 100 percent focused on assuring these deficiencies are corrected.”

The college began the process of notifying students of the commission’s recent finding Monday, assuring them that the college’s accreditation remains intact during the process.

“We are discouraged but not heartbroken or dismayed that we can’t do what needs done,” Stork said.

Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.

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