Cochise College will not extend its services in Santa Cruz County past June 30 after all, and the CEO of the Santa Cruz County Provisional Community College District said she is unsure if a new provider will be ready to offer local classes by the fall semester.

In February, the college district board gave CEO Stella Perez permission to extend the district’s contract with Cochise College until Dec. 31, but Cochise College President J.D. Rottweiler said the deal fell apart after the SCCPCCD board and lawyer requested changes to the extension agreement.

“The stuff that came back from the Santa Cruz board fundamentally changed the terms of that (agreement) and at that point we decided it wasn’t in Cochise College’s best interest to continue in the relationship,” Rottweiler said Friday.

“This has been one of the most difficult decisions for Cochise College to make in light of the fact that we recognize there are a number of students in Santa Cruz County who are desirous of higher educational opportunities and the college has been proud to provide those since 2003,” he said.

Perez said she was surprised and disappointed that Cochise College pulled out of the extension, saying: “We had an agreement in hand.”

She disagreed with the characterization that the proposed changes to the agreement were significant, saying the lawyer made approximately 12 “minor” wording edits to the contract.

“It seemed to be so minor and we were even willing to retract (the requested changes),” she said.

The SCCPCCD has been in talks with Pima Community College leaders since early December about Pima becoming the district’s new partner college, but Perez said Friday that she is unsure if an agreement with Pima can be secured in time for the fall semester.

“Our greatest concern is how we can now move the students forward for a fall semester in Santa Cruz County,” she said.

Potential impact

Cochise College initially notified SCCPCCD in late November 2016 that it would not renew its contract with the district when it expires at the end of June. The extension revealed in February appeared to buy both parties more time to complete the transition, but with that deal out the window, Cochise College now must negotiate a contract with the local board to provide a “teach-out” arrangement for local students in case Pima Community College or another provider cannot move in by the fall semester, Rottweiler said.

The plan will allow students currently enrolled at the Cochise College-Santa Cruz Center in Nogales to finish their coursework at another Cochise College campus – such as those in Sierra Vista, Benson or Douglas – or through online classes or a hybrid option. Rottweiler said he will propose that any student who has been enrolled at the Santa Cruz Center for the past three semesters will be able to take advantage of the teach-out agreement during the following three semesters.

If students prefer to transfer to another community college, the Arizona General Education Curriculum program allows them to transfer their credits to the new institution. Rottweiler said the college will provide one free official transcript to students wishing to transfer to another school.

Rigoberto Felix, a 20-year-old Nogalian studying at the Santa Cruz Center, said that due to his work schedule, it would be “totally inconvenient” for him to commute elsewhere if a new educational provider is not secured by the fall semester. He said he doesn’t think he would do well in online courses.

Fellow student Juan Peña said if courses are not offered at the center this fall, he would probably take online classes because driving to Tucson or another Cochise College campus would take too long.

Felix said he was disappointed that college officials initially notified students about Cochise College’s departure with a letter. “Santa Cruz County is kind of like a really large Hispanic community where everything is conducted in a family, a brotherhood way,” he said, adding that communicating the information about Cochise College through the letter was “not the way that it normally works.”

Peña also reported having received murky information about the college transition, and said that once he learned that the contract extension discussions broke down, “It was surprising.”

“It got me thinking if there’s going to be another college coming to Nogales or if I would have to leave town to continue studying,” the 20-year-old Nogalian said.

College officials have not been entirely forthcoming with the NI, either. After the paper published a story on Feb. 14 with news that the district had reached a deal to keep Cochise College in the county through the end of the year, no one from the college reached out with information that the deal was in jeopardy. Neither Perez nor two board members reached for comment for a March 17 story on a contract extension for Perez mentioned the demise of the extension, either. The NI only learned about the development from Rottweiler after receiving a tip from an employee.

When asked why she did not mention the end of the extension negotiations when she spoke with the reporter of this story on March 10, Perez said she only learned that there was absolutely no chance to renegotiate the contract during a March 13 phone call with Rottweiler.

For his part, Rottweiler said he alerted the district on Feb. 27 that Cochise was pulling out of extension discussions because the changes to the contract “did not meet with our mutually agreed upon expectations.” He reiterated the stance in an email sent March 6, he said.

Rottweiler said he entered the negotiations “in good faith” but “their board and their CEO have made it very clear over the course of the last couple years that they were not pleased with our services and were desirous of somebody else to come in to provide services.” Perez joined the district as CEO in August 2016.

As for faculty and staff, Rottweiler said he sent a “reduction in force” letter to the center’s full-time benefited employees on March 10 notifying them that they would be out of a job after June 30. He said those employees can apply to open positions at any Cochise campus and that at least one employee who has already sent in an application will likely be rehired.

The NI reached out to several of the affected employees, but none returned messages seeking comment.

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