Cuesta College has been searching for years for a site for a South County educational center, so it’s understandable that it would want to take advantage of an opportunity to lease a vacant industrial building that appears to fill the bill.
The owner of the Grover Beach property has agreed to spend nearly $1 million to convert the building to meet Cuesta’s needs.
Also, the amount the college would pay — $145,000 per year — is about equal to what it costs the college to lease classrooms from the Lucia Mar school district.
It sounds attractive, to be sure, but is this really the right time to move forward with an ambitious project?
Here’s our concern: Funding for community colleges remains a huge uncertainty. If voters fail to pass the tax extensions the governor is trying to place on the June ballot, all levels of public education will take another big hit. Under a worst-case scenario, Cuesta projects a shortfall of more than $8 million.
College officials don’t view the South County center as a budget liability, however.
They insist the center will be revenue neutral — meaning they won’t pay out any more than they spend now to offer a limited number of night classes at Nipomo and Arroyo Grande high schools.
In fact, they don’t plan to offer more classes or to try to boost South County enrollment for the first few years, which should help hold down expenses.
However, agreeing to a multi-year lease for the building would lock the college into a financial commitment it does not have under the year-to-year lease arrangement with Lucia Mar.
And while remaining revenue neutral is a laudable goal, if the pattern of other government operations is any indicator, there’s almost certain to be some unanticipated costs in running a center.
Another big consideration: Cuesta College’s accreditation remains on the line. The college faces an October deadline to comply with the accreditation commission’s recommendations. That must be the top priority — period — and we’re concerned that opening a South County center could be a distraction.
That said, we believe the goal should remain on the college’s radar. We strongly agree that all residents of the county deserve equal access to education, and we commend Cuesta for working to maintain a presence in South County, even as it’s struggled in this awful economy.
Given the uncertain economy, though, it makes far more sense to gradually expand the current schedule of night classes and perhaps add some day classes to gauge interest.
If Lucia Mar’s rental rates are too high, by all means, look elsewhere for something more affordable.
But until Cuesta’s accreditation is settled and funding for community colleges is more stable, we believe plans for a South County educational center should be put on hold.