Guest Commentary 

Anyone who claims that Pima Community College is rejecting students is being dishonest

Pima Community College operates under the direction of a five-member board of governors; the members are elected from each of five county districts. The board is elected by voters to six-year terms, and the positions are non-paid. This year, voters will choose representatives from districts 3 and 5.

District 3 is currently represented by Sherryn "Vikki" Marshall, who is running for a third term. Marshall is a retiree who is currently working for Pima County, helping homeless families find employment. Her campaign literature states that she is endorsed by the Pima Area Labor Federation and the Arizona AFL-CIO.

Marshall's opponent is Sylvia Lee, a former PCC campus president with a doctorate in educational leadership and policy studies. She also has an interesting personal story that is a testament to the value of PCC's role in education.

District 5 is currently represented by Marty Cortez, who is running for a fourth term. She holds a master's degree in counseling and guidance from the University of Arizona. She has worked as a principal in both the Nogales and Amphitheater school districts. She is also active in a number of Hispanic organizations.

Cortez has two opponents, Richard Fridena and Francis Saitta. While their platforms are quite similar, Fridena is by far the stronger candidate. While Saitta asserts a number of specific objections to current PCC policies, and offers some specific actions he will try to take if elected, there does not appear to be much to his campaign beyond that. He does not even have a website. Fridena, on the other hand, is running a strong campaign complete with a comprehensive website, signs and even door-hangers. His long list of endorsements looks like a "who's who" of Pima County machine politics, including Raúl Grijalva, Richard Elías and Regina Romero.

All three challengers have similar platforms and complaints, though Lee is less specific and pointed than Fridena. The one issue that appears to be the primary motivation of all three challengers, though, is the alleged institution of admissions standards. It is the first in a list of complaints on Fridena's website: "The PCC governing board has abolished the college as an open enrollment and an affordable institution of higher education as originally created by the residents of Pima County. Late last year, the board adopted a very controversial change in the admissions policy, closing off open admissions. From now on, approximately 5,000 people—our kids and neighbors—will be kept out each year. The governing board has made Pima College a selective institution, out of touch with the needs of Pima County residents."

This accusation is false. Admissions are still open. No one is turned away. Scott Stewart, chairman of the governing board, explained to me what actually happened.

"The college studied student outcomes and determined that those new students who could demonstrate at least seventh-grade capability would have a decent shot at earning some form of certification or an associate's degree. ... If the student assessed below seventh-grade, the student was far more likely to suffer frustration and failure, and run through the available grants and loans before achieving his goal," Stewart said.

"So we modified the criteria for getting financial aid and taking college-credit classes. Those scoring seventh-grade or above could start taking college-level courses and getting financial aid. Those students scoring below seventh-grade were generally sent to the PCC Prep Academy, where the students are given free tutoring and online modules to work on their specific weaknesses until they reached a level where they have a shot. No one was turned away. Everyone was admitted. But these latter, severely under-prepared students would not, with some exceptions, be eligible for financial aid or to take college-level classes until they demonstrated they could do the work."

One can have an honest debate on the merit of these changes, but what we have instead is a blatantly false accusation that is unworthy of governing-board candidates. In a perfect world, those who oppose organizational changes would honestly state their objections and have an open and honest discussion regarding them.

But this is not a perfect world. This is Pima County.

More by Jonathan Hoffman

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