Cabrillo College's football field from above
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Cabrillo College

With renaming vote looming, Cabrillo College trustees spar over timeline, community backlash

Cabrillo College’s governing board is slated to vote Aug. 7 on a new name for the school, but with just $2,500 of the potential $600,000 needed for the change raised so far, two trustees voiced concerns about moving forward.

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Cabrillo College trustees were divided Monday over the timeline of a controversial decision to pick a new name for the school next month, with one trustee saying the process has “torn the community apart” while others argued it was crucial to press ahead.

During an update to the college’s board Monday, Cabrillo president Matt Wetstein said the school has so far raised $2,500 in private donations to pay for the name change ahead of an Aug. 7 vote to officially choose a new name. Wetstein said the change could cost between $400,000 and $600,000 but that the college is looking into ways to cut costs. The change will be fully funded by private donations and grants and will not use money from the college’s general fund, he said.

The majority of the board voted last November to change the name of the school to remove the reference to 16th-century European explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. College leaders unveiled a shortlist of five names — Aptos College, Cajastaca College, Costa Vista College, Seacliff College and Santa Cruz Coast College — last month. Cabrillo plans to start using the new name by July 2024.

The decision to rename the school has sparked a fierce debate across Santa Cruz County between those who argue that changing the name is unnecessary and those who say it’s an important step in addressing a legacy of racism and colonialism.

Governing board trustee Christina Cuevas said she’s been seeing more negative than positive comments in local media outlets and also shared concerns about long-term impacts on the college. For example, she’s concerned the fundraising arm of the college, the Cabrillo College Foundation, could potentially lose donations from funders who oppose changing the name.

“I’m concerned, personally, I think all of us are … about how the controversy is affecting the reputation of the college, the potential impact on the foundation donations,” she said. “And for me, that translates into what kinds of support our students get as they move forward needing the support for scholarships and just living expenses.”

Cuevas said trustees have also personally been receiving negative feedback about the name change. “How do we handle that?” she asked. “And how do we take a positive step towards meeting the authorization and direction of our board and thinking about the future of our college and the people that will be attending here?”

Trustee Rachael Spencer, the one board member who voted against the name change in November, said the name change has “torn the community apart.”

However, board chair Adam Spickler said loud opponents of the name change don’t represent the entire community’s views on the issue. He pointed to the large number of opinion submissions against the name change in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

“Older white folks who are Sentinel subscribers do not make up the majority of our county,” he said. “They think they do. They absolutely think they do. They are a loud voice. And I have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of friends in the community who are also reaching out to me [saying], ‘Please do not stop this process. Please do not let that voice win.’”

Cabrillo College
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Trustee J. Dan Rothwell said he was also concerned about the negative comments in the media. He said the board could assist people who support the name change to submit opinions to local media.

“I think that’s part of what’s happening in this whole debate — and it’s been happening for three years — is that the people who are opposing — the louder shouters that you’re talking about — are getting the publicity,” he said. “So everybody’s getting the impression that the entire community is opposed to this and it’s just the board that is pushing this for their own purposes. They’re not hearing the other side.”

Both Spencer and Rothwell said they had concerns about moving forward with the renaming vote on Aug. 7 without having raised all the money necessary to complete the process. Previously, Wetstein told Lookout that he was considering ways to reduce the costs or spread them out over several years, such as having the school’s athletic teams continue to play in old uniforms that say “Cabrillo” on them.

Spencer addressed the “big gap” between the $2,500 in private donations so far and the estimated costs of up to $600,000 to make the changes. She added that the board has a huge job in building trust with the community at a time when there is a lot of anger from people who oppose the change.

“I don’t think a trustee can vote on something that doesn’t have the funds — that will be highly irresponsible, saying we’re going to do this and hope we get the funds,” she said. “The funds should be in place.”

Rothwell said that while he agrees the board should vote to change the name next month, he was “really hesitant to vote on this” if the funds don’t all come in.

“I’m with Rachael on this — we either get the funds to do this and do the entire project or we wait until we get those funds,” he said. “Because we made it into a situation where we start to do it and there are no more funds. So then we started a process, and then we’re really in a pickle.”

Spickler argued that it’s not uncommon for the board to vote on plans before the college has all the money to move forward.

“I do think it’s appropriate for our board to continue to vote on this in a direction as long as that direction is clear that it’s intended to take action as we actively [clear] the financial hurdles we need to,” he said.

Cuevas responded by saying that the college’s leaders always knew it would take time and that the new name “wouldn’t go into effect until July 2024.”

Wetstein said the plans he put forward to complete the renaming were done at the direction of the board when it voted to change the name in November. But, he added, it’s also up to the board to decide how to move forward at the Aug. 7 meeting.

“You delegated authority to me to implement decisions. And you have to be comfortable with that,” he said, adding: “I think it’s appropriate for the board to make a policy judgment and say, ‘Don’t go forward unless you’ve got some certain threshold of dollars in hand to do it.’”

“I think that’s a conversation appropriately that you should have here on Aug. 7, to make that determination,” he said.

Trustees did not take a vote Monday on whether to delay choosing a new name for the college next month. Rothwell and Spencer shared their thoughts about feeling uncomfortable with the vote without having the funding, but it wasn’t a decision in front of the board to vote on.

Spickler emphasized that the college staff and board subcommittee have thought this process through. He also said he wanted board members to remember why they voted to change the name before it considers pausing moving forward until it has the funds to do it.

“This is an initiative that we have taken on as an anti-racist initiative. Bottom line, that’s the underscoring of this. It is an effort to look at the way colonialist harms have played out in this nation,” he said.