Valley Perspective : Pierce College Deserves Community's Support : School Needs Neighbors' Sympathy, Earthquake Relief

There was a certain irony in the fact that a quake-relief concert held on behalf of Cal State Northridge was held at Pierce College's Recital Hall. Since the underlying message of that story was that CSUN was too damaged to host its own recovery event, Pierce once again found its own considerable troubles overshadowed by other concerns. Pierce also suffered greatly in the quake, a fact that exacerbated an already onerous financial situation.

Pierce College's importance to the southwest San Fernando Valley's educational offerings is too often overlooked; so is the fact that its presence has enhanced the local economy by bringing faculty, staff people and 15,500 to 16,000 students to a central location. On occasion, those folks just might buy a thing or two in the surrounding area. In a recession, that's certainly a plus.

Few institutions have come up with as many imaginative and independent solutions to fiscal problems. And few institutions have faced as many efforts to place restrictions on those solutions. Perhaps the neighbors who object to every survival idea that Pierce officials come up with would rather see it slowly deteriorate into a shabby, underenrolled and financially strapped institution.

We are on the brink of that, and to allow it would be a great mistake.

Now, as a new acting president prepares to take the reins, it's time to point out that the school at least needs some sympathy from its neighbors, if not considerable help from those who can afford to provide it. It needs attention from elected and appointed officials. It needs earthquake relief and it needs to be given a chance to decide on whether it should seek out a new educational mission.

Pierce College sustained more than $2 million in damage from the Northridge quake. It was not only the most severely damaged of the nine Los Angeles community colleges, it suffered more financial losses than the other eight campuses combined.

Even before that, Pierce faced a $1.3-million budget shortfall, necessitating a cut of some 130 classes. But this is also the area in which unusual burdens have been placed on Pierce. Simply put, it is not allowed to act as a college that is struggling to do its best for its students.

Thus, the idea of offering itself as a repository for the dirt that was to be excavated from the nearby Warner Ridge development, was labeled a bad one, even though Warner Ridge had planned to pay Pierce $2.1 million for it. Neighbors said that this would destroy one of the natural rest stops for Canada geese. (The deal has since fallen through, leaving that huge deficit in its wake.) The Pierce idea of setting aside some of its land for a revenue-producing golf course and driving range was also panned. This time, Pierce was referred to as one of the Valley's last open spaces, which, of course, meant that the open space had to be preserved.

Pierce College is not a wildlife refuge. It's not a park. It's a college that wants to offer a full summer program and a full slate of courses in the fall and the spring for students who deserve such choices. It has tried to come up with solutions that would not have involved any additional costs to taxpayers. For that, it ought to be applauded, not panned.

Fortunately, Pierce's newly chosen acting president--Valley College President Mary Lee--brings with her a certain reputation for toughness. Lee, for example, opened the Valley College campus two days after the quake, much to the chagrin of faculty and students who felt they needed much more time to recover from the temblor's effects. She'll need that toughness to deal with Pierce's enrollment decline, budget problems, and the detractors who shoot down its efforts to raise more revenues.

Lee has just two years to come up with solutions. She deserves some room to maneuver, and the active support of her new neighbors and elected officials in the West Valley.

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