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Search begins for new Cuesta College president

The search for Cuesta College’s new interim leader is on, school officials said Tuesday, and they hope to have someone before current President David Pelham steps down at the end of December.

Pelham this week notified faculty, staff and the school’s Board of Trustees that he’s resigning from his post to direct a college in Abu Dhabi, a city in the United Arab Emirates along the Persian Gulf. The name of the college hasn’t been revealed.

The board hopes to approve the hiring of the interim president at its Jan. 6 board meeting, said Stephan Gunsaulus, the college’s media and marketing director. Salary will be based on negotiations between the candidate and the board, he said.

An interim president could serve up to a year, Gunsaulus said.

Pelham made $195,000 per year before taking a 5 percent pay cut in the spring to help balance the budget.

He came to Cuesta after serving as superintendent/president of the College of the Siskiyous in the Northern California town of Weed.

His tenure, which began March 3, 2008, will be the shortest of any of the five presidents in the college’s 45-year history. He has overseen an approximately $60 million annual budget, 15,000 students, 43 administrators, 215 employees, 165 full-time faculty and 414 part-time faculty.

In his resignation letter to the college community, Pelham said he had been ineffective at bringing positive change to a campus culture he described as inflexible.

“The job is just getting tougher and tougher and tougher,” Jim Sargen, former president of the Cuesta College Foundation board, said of community college presidents statewide. State budget cuts have played a part, he said.

The Abu Dhabi job was not Pelham’s first attempt to leave.

In October, he interviewed for the chancellor position at the Alabama Community College board but wasn’t chosen.

Cuesta’s fiscal crisis associated with the state budget has meant layoffs, cuts in classes and hours being reduced for staff and part-time faculty.

Pelham’s budgeting leadership was questioned over the summer when emotions ran high at an impromptu meeting with him and the Cuesta Foundation board over a plan to lay off the agency’s executive director.

More than 20 foundation board members grilled him over why he would eliminate June Stephens’ position, despite her being the foundation’s chief fundraiser.

The jobs were eventually saved and Pelham e-mailed an apology for the lack of communication with the foundation board on the matter.

“That whole event — I felt that might make him want to leave Cuesta,” Stephens said Tuesday.

“With respect for Dr. Pelham, as you go on in life you find you might get into a job that’s not the right fit,” Stephens said.

In going forward, those close to the college say its new leader needs to be a visionary with a plan.

The interim president search by Cuesta’s human resources department could likely end up finding a retired college president or someone between assignments from a pool within the state’s community college system, Gunsaulus said.

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