A capacity crowd packed its way into a glass-enclosed conference room at Pima Community College’s midtown headquarters Wednesday afternoon.
They made their way to the blasé white office building to voice their opposition to the Pima College Governing Board’s proposed budget cuts, which include a 6 percent cut to the college’s full-time workforce and the possibility of sports (such as track and field and football) being eliminated.
A line of speakers rotated through three-minute speeches at the lectern, covering a wide variety of subjects—from praising the school’s archeology program to debating the merit of cancelling athletics.
The discussion comes months after Maricopa County Community College voted to eliminate football earlier this year, citing similar budget cuts as a reason for the move.
Sahuaro grad and current Aztec football player Derik Hall was the first to argue against cutting the program.
Hall, who transferred to Pima after a short tenure at Northern Arizona University, said he wouldn’t be where he is today without the guidance of Aztecs Coach Jim Monaco.
The Sahuaro grad acknowledged getting into legal trouble during his time in Tucson, which ultimately sabotaged his college career. He said he battled depression, but fought it successfully thanks to Monaco’s guidance.
“I’ve been through a lot of stuff like that and Pima’s helped me a lot by taking me in and making me the man that I am today,” Hall said. “I’ve been through so much, with deaths and stuff like that. I went through a depression stage about a year-and-a-half ago, and Pima won’t let me go. I really appreciate coach Monaco and I appreciate Pima Athletics.”
Other speakers included Tucson Medical Center sports medicine doctor Mohammed Mortazavi, former Arizona football coach Dick Tomey, Pueblo High School football coach and Pima alum Brandon Sanders and a host of track athletes and coaches.
Each of the 25 speakers touched on a similar narrative during their three minutes at the lectern, hitting various points on the value of junior college athletics to the community.
Assistant track coach Chad Harrison described the joy of watching his former junior college athletes graduate from four-year schools, knowing how far they’ve come in their careers.
“I watched four kids graduate last week from the University of Northern Colorado,” he said. “I intend to see all them graduate, because they’re my kids. These kids don’t have the opportunity that many of us were blessed with. Without Pima College athletics, I wouldn’t be in college.
I became a teacher to coach. I never wanted to be here as a coach, it just fell into my lap and now I’ve been here for thirteen years. I’d love to be here for a few more, and I’d love to send a couple more hundred kids to Division I on full ride scholarships.”
Monaco, who’s in his eighth season with the Aztecs, expressed confidence that the program will live on.
Monaco knows how important the sport is to the community, with 110 athletes receiving a second chance at playing the game they love.
“It’s the best job I’ve ever had. I can’t tell you why,” he said. “I was a police officer for 22 years and I believe I did a good job and I worked hard in the community, but when you’re coaching, the word coach goes right along with dad and uncle and grandfather. It’s that big of a deal. You get to touch kids in ways that you could never do in any other profession.”
Monaco was overwhelmed by the support shown at Wednesday’s meeting, saying he didn’t have to speak because the community did so for him.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “They asked me if I was going to talk and I said the last time I told them I was done talking. What more could I say? This is everything. This is everything.”
Decision to come
All five of the Board’s members spoke after the public comment period. Members Meredith Hey and Sylvia M. Lee expressed doubts about the college’s sports budget.
Both admitted that cuts are going to come to the college’s athletics budget, the same as most other departments, though Lee vouched for football’s potential going forward.
“Football can be saved. But it is possibly going to be at the demise of some other sport,” Lee said. “I really believe what football brings to this community, especially because I see so many men of color in here, and it’s so important that we have access—a hundred young men have access.”
District 5 Board Member Luis Gonzales had a sharp rebuke to Hey and Lee’s comments, criticizing Chancellor Lee Lambert for trying to impose draconian cuts on the school’s athletics programs.
“The issue before us on this agenda coming up is not whether we’re going to cut football or cut athletics,” Gonzales said. “It’s whether or not we’re going to give the chancellor total and free decision making over the entire program, including football.”
Gonzales expressed a desire to listen to the audience’s passion, ahead of the board’s final vote at their meeting on June 13, with a goal of implementing their plan before the start of the 2019 fiscal year on July 1.
“It’s about building minds. It’s about making sure that the students are able to get through their studies and become successful citizens later in life,” Gonzales said. “And that is what athletics brings to any institution. To any educational institution. It’s not just about people of color. It’s about every person that comes with every single aspect of life.”
The five-member board voted to allow Chancellor Lambert to review sports that can be eliminated to save the college money, while also increasing student success.
At issue is whether the football team, which was created in 2000 and given extra support with the creation of a student activity fee in 2004, can survive on its own.
According to PCC budget documents, fees generated nearly $1.9 million for the athletics department. Executive Vice Chancellor for Finance and Administration David Bea told Tucson Local Media that an additional $232,000 came via the general fund for athletics department positions, and that the general fund transfers another $500,000 to cover the athletics budget expenses.
Football, according to the budget, was the most expensive sport. The budgeted direct expenses for the program total roughly $406,000.
The college sent out a survey to students earlier this year to gauge student interest in athletics and for an increase in fees, according to the Board.
PCC Director of Athletics Edgar Soto is optimistic that the school’s Governing Board will take its time to hear all sides on the topic at-hand.
He believes that all parties involved are operating in good faith and that the fate of the school’s 16 athletics programs will be decided in a rational manner.
“Of course, I’m an athletic director, I don’t want to drop any sports,” he said. “I understand the challenges we have, but I am thankful that the administration, the board, is allowing us to look at things, explore things. They’re not planning on doing something overnight. This discussion is going to continue.”
Soto thanked the Governing Board for avoiding the type of hasty decision-making that MCCC did earlier this year, expressing hope that a solution can be found.
“I think that people will get to have some more discussion. I think, unlike in Maricopa, they’re allowing is to discuss it. I think that’s important,” Soto said. “As long we keep the dialogue continuing, you know there’s opportunities.”
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