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3 Cuesta president candidates talk accreditation

Restoring Cuesta College’s accreditation and securing needed funding in the face of dire state budget cuts dominated a discussion Tuesday among the three candidates vying for the top job at the campus.

The three finalists for president/superintendent addressed a crowd of about 70 people at a public forum at the college’s San Luis Obispo campus.

In recent years, Cuesta has struggled with turnover in key administrative positions, fought to retain its accreditation and been forced to make millions of dollars in cuts.

Job candidate Edward Knudson applauded Cuesta’s effort to restore its accreditation standing and voiced support for the process.

“We need to be able to tell our communities how we know we are doing our job,” said Knudson, who most recently served as vice president of student services at Moorpark College.

Cuesta has been on probation status since February 2010, when the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges said it was not satisfied with progress on several recommendations given to the college in January 2009.

Chief among those were the need for a better strategic plan and the lack of sufficient staff to provide administrative services.

Another candidate, Willard Lewallen, has served on multiple accreditation teams in the past, including one that visited American Samoa, and he is expecting a trip to Hawaii Tokai International College in the spring.

He also shepherded West Hills College in Coalinga, where he currently serves as president, through the accreditation process last spring, he said.

“I have the qualifications and the experience needed,” Lewallen said.

Cuesta interim President Gil Stork, the only internal candidate, has headed the college’s effort to restore its accreditation for the past two years.

“I understand accreditation,” Stork said. “It is a day-to-day process of designing and implementing a focus on student learning.”

Both Lewallen and Stork said that securing a bond to pay for needed facility and technology upgrades was critical.

In 2006, voters rejected a $310 million bond measure — a loss that many Cuesta leaders have since said was devastating to the college.

“No one wants to talk about taxes,” Lewallen said. “But there are not many ways to address facility needs without a bond.”

Lewallen was successful in passing three separate bonds in Coalinga by creating school facility improvement districts.

That approach, he said, would work well at Cuesta as it strives to modernize its aging buildings, keep technology current and build a South County campus.

“A bond measure would have to be artfully done in this challenging environment,” Stork said. “It takes the commitment and support of the entire community, and if we are not all in it together, then it will not work.”

In May, the college’s board of trustees approved $2.9 million in cuts for the 2011-12 fiscal year, affecting the jobs of about 120 employees.

Stork, who was questioned about his decision to reduce the hours of more than 40 classified positions as part of the cuts, said he would have preferred a unilateral furlough, but the faculty and classified unions would not consider it.

All three candidates expressed the desire to see the college move forward with its plans to build a South County campus.

“Even during tough financial times, growth and progress should not stop,” Knudson said.

The finalists will be interviewed by the board of trustees today, and a decision is to be announced in early December.

The college has been absent a permanent leader since David Pelham resigned in November 2009 after he declared he wasn’t the best fit for the college.

His tenure was marked by a wave of heated board meetings about state budget cuts eventually coming to a head with public backlash over a proposal to eliminate the executive director of the fundraising Cuesta Foundation.

Pelham’s tenure, which began in March 2008, was the shortest of any of the five presidents in the college’s 45-year history.

His experience fell on the heels of former President Marie Rosenwasser’s pressured resignation from the board in September 2006 after Cuesta’s $310 million bond measure failed and sparked a rift at the campus. Rosenwasser had served for seven years.

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

Read the resumes of the three candidates below:

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