Quick Take:

Martha Vega, Rebecca Garcia and Manuel Bersamin are in the running to represent Watsonville on Cabrillo College’s governing board, a seat vacated when Felipe Hernandez was elected District 4 Santa Cruz County supervisor in November. Cabrillo trustees will appoint a replacement at a meeting Monday.

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Three Watsonville residents competing to fill a vacant seat on the Cabrillo College board of trustees think the college can tackle declining enrollment through surveying dropouts, adding vocational programs and eliminating restrictions on repeating classes.

On Monday, the college’s governing board is set to appoint a trustee to fill a seat vacated by Felipe Hernandez, who was elected District 4 Santa Cruz County supervisor in November. The seat represents the city of Watsonville. The appointment will be effective immediately and run through November 2024.

“We are holding this in-person meeting of our governing board at our Watsonville Center knowing how valuable it is to include the local community as we interview candidates and vote to appoint a new Area 5 trustee,” Cabrillo board president Adam Spickler said in a statement. “We hope to see many community members attending our appointment session.”

Ahead of the meeting, Lookout interviewed the applicants about several challenges facing the community college, including declining enrollment, changing the college’s name and housing insecurity among students.

Rebecca Garcia.
Rebecca Garcia. Credit: Via Rebecca Garcia

Declining enrollment has been an ongoing issue for community colleges across California, including at Cabrillo. In 2021, the college reported a 10.9% decline in enrollment compared to the state’s average of 14.8%.

When it comes to declining enrollment, Martha Vega, Rebecca Garcia and Manuel Bersamin offered wide-ranging suggestions.

Garcia, a former Watsonville city councilmember and mayor, would start with surveying people who drop out to target common reasons people leave.

Garcia, who previously served as a Cabrillo trustee from 1992 to 2012, said the college can focus on efforts to bring back students who, for a variety of reasons, couldn’t finish their studies.

“We need to survey those that dropped out and find out why they dropped out,” said Garcia. “Once we have that information, then we can develop a plan in terms of can we provide those services or resources that the students need.”

For Vega, a former Watsonville Police Department non-uniformed staff member and a current Watsonville High School teacher, removing barriers that prevent students from repeating courses is crucial. She attributes declining enrollment to a 2013 decision by the California Community Colleges Board of Governors that restricts who can repeat physical education and visual arts courses. The limit was designed to save money by reducing the number of students retaking courses not required for students to graduate or transfer to a university.

Martha Vega.
Martha Vega. Credit: Via Martha Vega

Vega says the restriction hurt enrollment at Cabrillo by driving students to other schools.

“It forced our community students to register in our surrounding area or online at different institutions,” she said.

“It is important that we collaborate and we meet with legislators, we meet with other individuals, and stress the importance of repealing [limits on] repeatability.”

Bersamin emphasized encouraging adult dropouts to return and adding vocational programs such as agricultural technology.

Bersamin, the director for a student retention program at Hartnell College in Salinas, said he feels Cabrillo can increase enrollment by better catering to the needs and interests of residents in southern Santa Cruz County.

“Watsonville has more in common with the Salinas Valley than [it does] with northern Santa Cruz County,” he said. “So if you want more Watsonville adults to attend Cabrillo then you need to offer them those majors that will help them to work within agriculture but for higher-paying jobs.”

When asked if the applicants agreed with the board’s majority vote to change the name of the college, Bersamin and Garcia both said they supported the name change, arguing that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s legacy does not reflect the school’s values.

Vega declined to say directly if she agreed or not, but emphasized the importance of community input in the renaming process and the college’s recent failed bonds.

Manuel Bersamin.
Manuel Bersamin. Credit: Via Manuel Bersamin

Many who opposed the college’s name change said Cabrillo’s failed attempts to raise money through two recent bond measures were a symptom that the college is losing the community’s support over the past several years and argued that changing the name would make it even harder to raise money.

When it comes to the issue of housing, all three agreed that the board’s decision to move forward with a 624-bed proposal in partnership with UC Santa Cruz will help alleviate housing insecurity among students. Vega and Garcia added that the college must continue pushing for housing options for faculty as well.

Bersamin argued that providing vocational skills and training that help Cabrillo students compete for jobs that pay well is the best way to tackle housing affordability.

“If the residents of Watsonville have the majors that they need, they’ll be able to have a living wage to afford housing in Watsonville,” he said. “The more they’ll be able to afford housing, the more options families will have for education.”

Cabrillo College board of trustees meeting details: The board’s meeting will take place Monday, Feb. 27, at 6 p.m. at Cabrillo’s Watsonville Center, located at 318 Union St. in Watsonville. The meeting is open to the public.

After three years of reporting on public safety in Iowa, Hillary joins Lookout Santa Cruz with a curious eye toward the county’s education beat. At the Iowa City Press-Citizen, she focused on how local...