Politics & Government

Cuesta College makes its pitch for $275 million bond measure

Facilities director Terry Reece gives a tour of a darkroom in the journalism department that needs to be replaced and updated to the digital age.
Facilities director Terry Reece gives a tour of a darkroom in the journalism department that needs to be replaced and updated to the digital age. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Leaking roofs, failing air conditioning and heating units and a swimming pool that will soon no longer meet regulatory requirements are among the top repairs prioritized for a $275 million Cuesta College bond measure on the Nov. 4 ballot.

Measure L would cost property owners in the community college district $19.45 per $100,000 of assessed value annually. The district serves all of San Luis Obispo County and part of southern Monterey County.

Property owners would pay the tax for 34 years — through 2049.

Cuesta College, which just celebrated its 50th anniversary, has a main campus in San Luis Obispo, a satellite campus in Paso Robles and offers classes in Arroyo Grande. It enrolls more than 10,000 students.

In recent years the college has struggled with failing infrastructure, at times having to cancel classes because of power outages and downed computer servers.

In addition to fixing that problem, the bond money would allow the district to meet a state mandate to make modular buildings safer by replacing them with permanent classrooms, upgrade technology, build a job and career training facility in the North County, and eliminate or refinance millions of dollars in debt from past construction and campus upgrades.

“This is not about expansion, not about building for the future,” said Cuesta College President Gil Stork. “It is about protecting the public’s investment of what we have right now.”

Pros and cons

Advocates of Measure L say the money is needed to ensure that Cuesta College will continue to have the facilities and tools needed to offer job training programs and courses transferable to a four-year university.

Critics say the college is asking for too much money and doesn’t have the financial stability to guarantee it will be spent appropriately.

“I think everybody by and large realizes how important Cuesta is to the community,” said Bob Wacker, a local financial planner and chair of the Yes on L Campaign Committee.

Wacker, who also serves on the community college’s foundation board, said he is involved because he believes in accessible education.

“I see what people are looking for in employees, and their skill sets don’t always match with what they need,” said Wacker. “Cuesta plays a role in that, by upgrading skills (and) matching those to needs in the workforce.”

Upgrading the technology at the college is essential, he said.

“If you are going to train for 21st century jobs, you need to be able to train students in the type of environment that they will be expected to perform in (in) real life,” Wacker said.

An official committee has not formed to oppose the passage of Measure L. In fact, an argument against the measure was not even included in the county voter guide.

One skeptic of the bond, English teacher and former president of Cuesta’s teachers union Marilyn Rossa, said the college’s facility needs are obvious but that Cuesta needs to do more to improve its fiscal management and leadership before she would vote yes.

Rossa said the college could do more to increase enrollment — which would raise state funding.

Enrollment had dropped 30 percent in the past four years, largely in response to state budget cuts and its struggle with accreditation.

There are 3,456 full-time equivalent students now enrolled in the fall semester. At the same time last year there were 3,516 full-time equivalent students.

Enrollment and image

Stork said Cuesta has a long road to recovery, but administrators are working on programs, scheduling and other strategies to draw more students.

A key part of that plan focuses on enrolling high school students countywide in college courses centered on career planning and development.

A pilot program, launched this year with the county’s largest school district — Lucia Mar Unified School District in the southern part of the county — has nearly 300 high school students enrolled.

In addition, the college recently secured a $600,000 grant to develop career pathways curriculum for high school students in areas like health care and information technology. “In the next two to three years, we will have quite a substantial enrollment increase,” Stork said.

Cuesta College must also rebuild its image, which was tarnished after struggling for years to regain its status with the Accreditation Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. Although the college never lost accreditation, it came close.

Rossa says not enough time has passed to regain the public’s trust in the college. “It’s not surprising, the accreditation mess we were in,” said Rossa. “I’m happy that people were able to get it going again and that we got off sanctions. But we are no means out of the woods. They don’t deserve our trust now.”

Wacker said the college’s struggles made it stronger.

“It was a good experience for the college, although a painful one,” said Wacker. “The team of folks who worked hard on getting the college back on track did a great job, and Cuesta is now looked at as a poster child for good compliance.”

Measure L details

The general obligation bond measure, called the Cuesta College Education, Job Training and Campus Repair Measure, requires 55 percent approval from voters to pass.

It’s the first ballot measure the college has sought since voters rejected a $310 million measure in 2006. The last time the college raised money through a bond issue was in 1974. The $275 million bond would be issued in a series of four bonds over a nine-year period, starting in 2015 and ending in 2024. Each bond would have a 25-year maturity from the date it is issued.

A Citizen’s Oversight Committee would review all expenditures and annual audits would also be required.

The money could be used to fix buildings, construct new ones, improve technology and pay off past loans used to make repairs. The bond could not be used to pay salaries or pensions.

A summary of the intended improvements, planned in four-year phases, begins with the most critical work such as replacing the modular buildings, roofs, and air conditioning and heating units, as well as making needed repairs to the aquatics center.

The first phase includes paying off a portion of debt incurred from past loans used to complete buildings such as the student center in Paso Robles and the theater in San Luis Obispo and to purchase an integrated software system.

Stork said that in all, the bond would pay off about $21 million in debt.

“There is always a gap between what funding the state provides and what it costs to build it,” said Stork. “The loans filled that gap. Unless you have bond money already that you can leverage for a funding match or have a big reserve to spend down, it’s the only way.”

Paying off the past loans will save an estimated $1.6 million annually — freeing that money up in the general fund, said Stork.

Differences with previous measure

Besides the amount, the stark difference between Measure L and the bond that failed in 2006 is the focus — this bond is centered on repairs and upgrades. The past bond emphasized new development.

The college and its trustees faced severe criticism after the failure of the 2006 bond and waited for years to ask the public’s support of another one.

“A lot of us were around eight years ago, and we want to do everything we can to make sure we can get it passed,” Wacker said. “The fact that they went for every dollar that they could turned a lot of people off.”

Measure L has been endorsed by the college’s faculty and classified unions and by the Associated Students, Academic Senate and the Management Senate.

Kevin Bontenbal, Cuesta College’s Academic Senate president, said the focus of Measure L on the things that need the most critical attention such as repairing and upgrading classrooms and technology let to the Academic Senate’s support.

“The previous bond was more aspirational in focus,” said Bontenbal. “It also had repairs and upgrades built into it, but in addition was trying to build the college that individuals at that time envisioned it to be in the next 30 years. We all want Cuesta College to remain viable and strong and be here in the next 30 years, and beyond. So, Measure L is focused on those things that will ensure this.”

MEASURE L SCHEDULE 

First Issuance, 2015

Amount: $70 million

For: Temporary classroom replacement and new classroom facilities, including an instructional building on the San Luis Obispo campus and the campus center at the Paso Robles campus Repairs and upgrades to roofs, heating and air conditioning units, aquatic center and other infrastructure and utilities Technology upgrades Debt retirement for capital/construction projects

Second Issuance, 2018

Amount: $70 million

For: Temporary classroom replacement and new classroom facilities including the campus center in San Luis Obispo and the Early Childhood Center in Paso Robles Repairs and upgrades Technology upgrades Debt retirement for capital/construction projects

Third Issuance, 2021

Amount: $68 million

For: Repairs and upgrades Technology upgrades Job and career training facility in Paso Robles

Fourth Issuance 2024

Amount: $67 million

For: Repairs and upgrades Technology upgrades Project completion

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