Leaders of the Santa Cruz County Provisional Community College District said they are confident Pima Community College will become the district’s new partner college, but they must prepare for the bureaucratic challenges that lay ahead.
Speaking at an SCCPCCD board meeting last Thursday, district CEO Stella Perez called Pima Community College “such a good fit as far as the program offerings” because it has popular majors like logistics, trucking and business. She and board president Liz Collier initiated discussions with Pima officials on Dec. 9 after learning in late November that Cochise College will not renew its contract when it expires on June 30.
While the district continues its discussions with Pima, education consultant Homero Lopez told the board, “in many respects, the (transition) responsibility doesn’t lie with us – it lies with Cochise College and then with our (future) provider because they’re the ones that have to initiate all of this.”
“If one party holds up the other, then our whole transition could be in jeopardy,” he said, to which Collier responded: “Which is not going to happen, (we’re) not going to allow it.”
If Pima officials agree to sign a contract with SCCPCCD, Pima must receive approval from its accreditor, the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). The Tucson-based college must also work with the U.S. Department of Education to make sure students can apply for financial aid.
“Welcome to the bureaucracy,” Lopez said.
Board member Nils Urman said: “The outlier is not necessarily HLC because both schools (Cochise and Pima) know how to work with them, but it’s going to be the U.S. Department of Education and they tend to hold things up, and I think the student financial aid is the critical piece to have that authorized.”
Noting “all the changes in the current (federal) administration,” Lopez agreed with Urman, saying: “There will be a lot of stuff at the Washington level that is totally out of our control.”
In November, Lopez signed on with SCCPCCD to study the feasibility of pursuing accreditation, something that would eliminate the need for the district to contract with outside colleges to provide classes. However, the board voted at Thursday’s meeting to change Lopez’s contract so he could focus on the transition instead of accreditation.
In addition to turning attention away from the accreditation assessment, the district will put its grant applications on hold until a new partner school is found, Collier said. She also expressed hope that instructors currently employed by Cochise College to teach local classes – many of whom live in Nogales and are highly rated by students – can move to the new school.
Board member Dan Rehurek said he is confident that $32,000 in scholarship money recently raised through IME-BECAS, a scholarship program offered by the Institute for Mexicans Abroad, will be transferred to the new college. Locally, the program is geared toward economically disadvantaged students of Mexican heritage who graduated from a Santa Cruz County high school and are enrolled or plan to enroll at Cochise College, and the latest funding was announced at an event Nov. 29.
Once a new college contract is secured, Lopez said, “Any credits that our students have earned are credits in the bank,” thanks to the Arizona General Education Curriculum program that allows course credits to transfer seamlessly between community colleges in the state.
Meanwhile, to account for a scenario in which a new college is not found in time, Cochise College is legally obligated to create a “teach-out” arrangement that will allow students to continue taking Cochise courses online or at another location such as Benson or Sierra Vista. Students interviewed for the story “Students hopeful that local classes continue” (NI, Dec. 16) expressed little enthusiasm for either of those options.
Pima Community College previously offered classes in the area for more than two decades before pulling out in 2003 amid a funding dispute with the Santa Cruz County government. Disagreements over funding continued and in 2011, the PCC board sued Santa Cruz County to collect millions of dollars that it felt it was owed for providing education to local students who attended its Pima County campuses. The lawsuit was dropped in early 2013 and then-Gov. Jan Brewer signed a new community college funding bill that resolved the out-of-county tuition payment issue.
Now, as PCC negotiates a return to Santa Cruz County, its enrollment has dropped to a 25-year low, forcing college leaders to consider “layoffs, campus closings, program elimination, reduced hours and fewer employee benefits,” according to a Dec. 14 story in the Arizona Daily Star.
‘Spread our wings’
In an email to the NI on Dec. 12, Cochise College President J.D. Rottweiler said the decision to end the arrangement after June 30 came from the realization that the college and district “have different objectives and are moving in different directions.”
Speaking last Thursday, Collier said: “I think we’ve had kind of a rent agreement with them … and we’re wanting to spread our wings a little bit.”
She said that while Cochise College wasn’t getting in the way of SCCPCCD’s accreditation dreams, they weren’t actively helping, either.
“It’s time for us to grow up,” Collier said. “I think in the long run we’re going to benefit. We’re going to be a stronger, better college for our students.”
Also at the Thursday meeting, the board discussed changes it hopes to make to its inter-governmental agreement (IGA) with the new college.
Lopez said details put into the IGA can “help you down the road with accreditation.” He suggested making teachers employees of the SCCPCCD, not the host college. Urman said the next IGA should give SCCPCCD ownership of technology infrastructure and student data.
Collier agreed that not owning student data “has been one of the biggest sources of frustration.” She said students were slow to learn about the upcoming transition because the district could not directly access their addresses and had to request them from Cochise College before sending out letters.
Students with questions or concerns about the upcoming transition can contact Stella Perez, CEO of the local college district, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“There will be education services when (students) need them here in the spring and in the fall,” Collier said. “Somehow, I don’t care how, but we’re going to have classes here.”