Cuesta College has been an important part of San Luis Obispo County since the early 1960s, when voters across the county agreed to create your community college.
We’ve offered classes in the South County at Arroyo Grande High School since 1965 and, more recently, at Nipomo High School. Now, we are proposing to consolidate those centers into a single facility in an existing building in Grover Beach. Some argue that the timing is not right to make this move. We counter that it’s not only the right time, but that our plan is also a great opportunity for South County residents.
In the past 14 months since taking over as superintendent/president, accreditation has been my top issue. We have lived it, breathed it and worked hard to remove the sanctions over administrative procedures that cloud our much-deserved reputation for excellence. I’m confident that we’ll succeed.
We’ve resolved two of the six areas cited by the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges — progress that the panel also recognized. “The most significant improvement relates to an emerging willingness of faculty, administration, staff and the board of trustees to work together to find a common ground for dialog and solutions,” the commission said in its November report.
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The recession has brought many challenges as well as opportunities. The only certainty that community colleges like Cuesta face from the Legislature is fiscal uncertainty. We recognize this new reality means Cuesta cannot count on Sacramento for resources to construct a new building or buy property to expand the number of students we serve.
Yet at the same time, the Great Recession does not excuse us from our mission of providing equal educational opportunities for all. We think our plan to relocate our educational center to Grover Beach is the most fiscally responsible way for the college to fulfill that mission.
Cuesta’s relationship with the Lucia Mar Unified School District has allowed the college to service one of the largest population centers in the county. But it has also tied our hands in terms of providing technology to Cuesta faculty and our students. And there have been rising rental costs at Arroyo Grande and Nipomo high schools, which surged from $45,000 in 2006 to $145,000 in 2008.
Cuesta would not pay any more in rent than it currently does for evening-only classroom space from Lucia Mar.
The project, which envisions renovating a building to create 13,000 square feet for classrooms and offices, a computer lab, learning resource center and student support services, will provide South County residents better access to education. The new center would transfer all our existing faculty and staff from the existing centers.
We surveyed residents who told us that they want and need Cuesta to have a greater presence in the South County. And South County leaders have also given the project their support.
This facility will provide our students access to the technology that Cuesta cannot provide in the rented classrooms that are available only after 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and must be shared with high school teachers.
In addition, it will give us greater flexibility and freedom to plan what courses are offered and when students can take them. We are not envisioning offering day classes when the center opens, but we could shift start times from early evening to afternoon, depending on student needs.
And from a financial standpoint, this project makes sense. It will allow us to lock in a predictable lease with a motivated property owner willing to renovate the space. The lease will include provisions to protect the college should economic conditions change.
Moreover, securing an extended lease helps us satisfy accreditation requirements for long-term fiscal planning. But does it make sense to wait until the economy improves? This is an opportunity that is a result of economic conditions.
As those conditions improve, commercial space will fill and rents will rise accordingly, meaning that we may not be able to find a space appropriate for our specific needs or be able to afford it should it be available.
Fundraising efforts are under way to furnish and equip the center and several major donors have already committed to the project.
As I’ve said, Cuesta is no stranger to the South County. We’ve been there since the college opened. And we have experience launching a new facility. More than a dozen years ago, Cuesta had a similar opportunity to create a stand-alone facility in the North County and provide equal educational opportunities for residents, who found it difficult to travel to our San Luis Obispo campus.
In 1998, classes began in portable classrooms in Paso Robles. Today, the second permanent building is under construction on a campus that has grown to more than 3,000 students. Proximity to educational opportunities is key, we know.
In closing, I encourage all county residents to think of the possibilities for an education center in centrally located Grover Beach. It’s a fiscally sound, cost-neutral plan. It will provide greater opportunities for South County students and give them the classrooms and technology that we cannot provide in our current facilities.
This project reflects an exciting public-private partnership with a property owner who is willing to invest in education. Now is the right time to fulfill the promise of an independent Cuesta College South County Education Center.
Dr. 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.