Cuesta College

Cuesta Complaint: College might be headed to court over Title IX issues

With Cuesta College facing Title IX complaints, it looks like the college is in for a lengthy battle that could cross over into the courtroom.

The issue goes beyond the fact that Cuesta did not have a Title IX compliance coordinator at the time the women’s tennis team was dropped over the summer — which is the violation that seems to be the crux of the complaints of former women’s tennis coach Mike Napoli and Title IX expert Diane Milutinovich.

Facing pressure to lower costs campus-wide after receiving a late budget from the state, Cuesta suspended the women’s tennis program in August to save an estimated $30,000.

On the surface, the cut appears in line with concurrent campus actions, but after reviewing the numbers, Milutinovich is convinced the elimination of women’s tennis was not money-based.

The athletic department seems to have increased its spending in other areas and has not shown critics that it evaluated all its options.

“It looks like they had some agenda,” Milutinovich said, “but I’m not privy to what the agenda is.”

The solution becomes the problem

When Cuesta athletic director Bob Mariucci was handed his share of budget cuts from Dean Deborah Wulff, who oversees four departments, including athletics, Mariucci said two programs without coaches were immediately identified as candidates to take the brunt of the $30,000 figure.

Softball coach Sara Clarin stepped down to spend more time with her family, and after 22 seasons, Napoli was retiring as the women’s tennis coach but keeping his teaching job.

By August, the state was mandating that all junior college programs shorten their seasons to save money, and Cuesta announced the suspension of women’s tennis — a team with only three returning players, compared to a potential 12 for softball — with Mariucci expressing an interest in resurrecting the team in the future.

The problem, say critics of the move, is that Mariucci, Wulff and the other administrators did not appear to consider the demand for a tennis team by incoming players or alternative options to eliminating a women’s sport, thus violating the spirit of Title IX.

Enacted by Congress in 1972, Title IX forbids gender discrimination at schools that receive federal funds. In sports, the law has been interpreted to require equal opportunities for male and female athletes.

Napoli provided a petition signed by 23 students interested in going out for women’s tennis this year and has since brought up two specific expenses that allegedly could have been cut to spare his team, one of the most successful on campus.

Where did the money go?

Since dropping women’s tennis, Cuesta has maintained a $20,000 fee to rent a gym from Camp San Luis Obispo, the neighboring California National Guard base, for the Cougars’ wrestling program.

The school is also spending $30,000 on charter buses for the first time, something Mariucci lobbied for in place of an aging network of 15 high-mileage vans driven by coaches. The vans are still being used for shorter trips.

“Over the years, we’ve been trying to receive buses for our longer trips because of safety of athletes and coaches,” Mariucci said. “That money is a totally separate issue. I know it’s $30,000, but this is for the safety of those kids.”

Milutinovich, who spent 27 years as a coach and administrator at Fresno State before settling her own discrimination lawsuit with the university for $3.5 million in 2007, said the wrestling program should share the on-campus gym, which is occupied by Cuesta’s men’s and women’s basketball programs, instead of renting from the military base.

“How could anyone ever think they were in financial difficulty?” said Milutinovich, who said she is volunteering her time in this case. “What fact could lead you to believe that other than the fact they dropped women’s tennis?”

Cuesta interim President Gil Stork disagreed. Specifically, he said, there is not another on-campus building that can accommodate wrestling.

“It’s easy for somebody to come in and pick numbers off of a sheet of paper and make a case when they don’t have the knowledge and the experience and the privilege of being part of those closed-door discussions,” Stork said.

“These are the most difficult decisions that any college administrator has to make.”

The question of fundraising

Cuesta College had a previous gender discrimination complaint in the early 1990s result in the administration, which included Stork, agreeing to a Title IX compliance plan with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, the federal entity that enforces Title IX.

In a 1994 memo obtained by The Tribune from Stork to then-President Grace Mitchell, Cuesta promises “revenues for meeting basic program needs will be generated from … new private fund-raising efforts” as well as from district and campus sources to ensure future Title IX compliance.

Fifteen years later, the $30,000 needed to satisfy the cuts was too much extra to ask of the department’s sponsors and private donors, Mariucci said.

“That’s a lot of money, and I would say our athletic department raises quite a bit already,” Mariucci said. “That amount would have been too much to have our department raise.”

Mariucci said his department already raises more than $140,000 per year, an amount that’s close to two-thirds of the athletic department’s operating budget, which does not include salaries.

As a sign of the department’s desperation to improve its fundraising efforts this year, Mariucci — the younger brother of former San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions head coach Steve Mariucci — called in a few favors to hold a groundbreaking raffle.

For the first time, Cuesta offered sponsorship opportunities for a minimum of $100 this fall. Every Cougars booster was guaranteed a spot in a drawing for prizes that included an autographed Joe Montana jersey.

The grand prize advertised on local radio was a trip for two to the Super Bowl in Miami — with Steve Mariucci providing the game tickets and the college paying for the flight and accommodations.

Bob Mariucci said the drawing brought in $12,000 on 120 raffle tickets, perhaps proving how tough it is to raise big money in a recession.

The $30,000 cut, if shared across the board by each of Cuesta’s 16 programs, would have come out to $1,875 per team. If the money could not be privately raised, Mariucci said, the only way to share that would have been to further cut the schedules beyond the mandate, something he deemed unacceptable.

Is Cuesta even violating Title IX?

Cuesta is prepared to argue that it still passes at least one of the tests generally used to measure Title IX compliance despite dropping women’s tennis.

Stork said the college will announce plans to introduce a new Title IX coordinator at the next board meeting Feb. 3 and will address other compliance issues as well.

There, Mariucci could also provide numbers that show Cuesta is giving athletic opportunities proportional to the college’s enrollment.

When the school had women’s tennis, the college had a 3.4 percent disparity between the number of female athletes and full-time female undergraduate students, according to figures submitted by Cuesta for last year’s Equity in Athletics Data Analysis report.

Theoretically, eliminating the eight roster spots counted for women’s tennis would worsen Cuesta’s proportionality. But that is not necessarily the case, according to another notable Title IX expert.

Val Bonnette is a former investigator for the Office of Civil Rights who founded Good Sports, Inc., a consulting firm specializing in helping schools comply with Title IX.

Bonnette said Cuesta could be deemed in compliance if it can shave enough roster spots from the current men’s teams to make the proportionality closer.

Last year, the numbers of men on the swimming and track and field teams outnumbered women by 35.

“My feeling is the college should do the right thing,” said Napoli, who’s offered to return to the team. “The team needs to be reinstated. This is not about could we. It’s about should we.”