One of the many races in the midterm elections this year is between Adrienne García Specht, a financial aid counselor at Cal Poly, and Peter Sysak, a current member of the Cuesta College Board of Trustees.
Sysak’s incendiary posts
Incumbent trustee Sysak has come under scrutiny from the Cuesta College community for making allegedly bigoted posts on his personal Facebook page. One of the posts in question included a statement by a group named Occupy Snowflakes, shared by Sysak, that read, “We live in a society where homosexuals lecture us on morals, transvestites lecture us on human biology, baby killers lecture us on human rights and socialists lecture us on economics.”
Another post shared by Sysak on September 29, 2020 read, “We don’t have a Police problem. We have a disrespectful criminal THUG PROBLEM!” in response to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.
The board of trustees unanimously approved a resolution to censure Sysak at a meeting on December 9, 2020. He is no longer the acting Cuesta College board president.
Sysak’s main challenger is Adrienne García-Specht, a financial aid counselor at Cal Poly, and a graduate of Arroyo Grande High School and Syracuse University. Specht has also worked as a writing instructor at both Allan Hancock and Cuesta College. Specht has said that working as a financial aid counselor at Cal Poly has been very rewarding, and has made her much more aware of the challenges that marginalized students face.
Specht wanted to bring additional attention to the fact that Sysak’s views have not changed since he was censured by the board of trustees nearly two years ago. Sysak has been accused by members of the Cuesta College community of specifically targeting transgender students.
On Sept. 11, 2022, Sysak shared a Facebook post from an account called “Idahoans for Liberty” that read, “‘I will not be addressing you by your “chosen pronouns.”’ If you look like a man, it’s sir, if you look like a woman, it’s “ma’am.” It’s not my job to validate your mental illness.”
The caption of the post read, “You can play pretend if you want. I refuse.”
Candidate public forum
On Oct. 13 at 5:30 p.m., a closed political forum was conducted, where the community could ask the two candidates questions on various topics concerning the school and the community, such as racism, rape accusations and social services. The two candidates had an hour to speak on these questions.
Sysak said in the forum that the biggest problem facing the college was enrollment, considering that campus enrollment is down 16% from pre-COVID levels. Specht said that the biggest problem was addressing the decline in mental health in students post-COVID, and providing better mental health services to students.
When asked what each board member would spend on their budgeting measures, Sysak stressed that 87% of the budget is diverted to salaries. Sysak said he would divert more of the budget towards sport programs, while Specht stressed that she would divert more towards retaining quality faculty and mental health programs.
“If somebody has a feeling that they’re being disrespected or being not treated in a suitable manner based on their race, that, you know, we have a Civil Rights Act of 1964 that guarantees that we don’t have discrimination on college campus,” Sysak said. “We also have campus policy that deals with that. We also have human resources that particularly deal with that area.”
Sysak went on to explain that there’s administration policy in place, and that students can talk to the dean if they feel they’re being discriminated against.
“So racism is a problem in SLO County,” Specht responded. “Our students experience it, our faculty and staff experience it. Here at Cuesta College and also our community.
“So first I think it’s important to acknowledge that and acknowledge too that our system is designed in an exclusionary way,” Specht continued. “Systemic racism is a real thing. So we need to be able to accept that as fact and then also begin to undo that, and be able to make our community and Cuesta College a more equitable place for all.”
Specht went on to say that Cuesta needs proactive action from the administration, and that there needs to be accountability from the school system in order to begin to address that racism. Specht also addressed that LGBTQIA students need to be protected, and that any anti gay or trans sentiments need to be shut down and told to be not acceptable.
“We need to stand strong, and stand in support of our LGBTQIA students,” Specht said.
When asked about how sexual assault allegations in Cuesta College should be handled, Specht said that the appropriate channels and support groups must be established, and that the reasons these types of questions are being asked is because they feel these sorts of concerns aren’t being addressed the way they should.
“Well, first of all we have a campus police department,” Sysak said. “They will investigate any criminal activity of sexual assault, if it’s a federal crime or misdemeanor this or that. If it’s appropriate and the evidence is there, they will file charges with the district attorney’s office on that incident if it meets the standards of breaking the law.”
Sysak went on to say that there’s also administrative ways to handle the charges, since many cases will be dropped due to evidentiary problems, but did not elaborate on that system. Sysak added that sexual assaults in San Luis Obispo are very few.
The Cuestonian interviews Specht
“Cuesta College to me symbolizes opportunity, and it is an important public institution that is worth defending and is worth investing in,” Specht said, in an exclusive interview with The Cuestonian.
When Specht was asked about Cuesta College providing needs beyond academics, Specht emphasized the importance of the institution’s other services.
“Especially during COVID, it was so important,” Specht said. ”If you were a Cuesta College student, it was such an important place to access a lot of resources that you needed in order to survive the pandemic, and so I think that is going to continue.”
Specht went on to say that student success, and reducing barriers to access, has always been an interest to her, saying that financial aid anxiety is one of the biggest areas of accessibility to colleges. She also wants to heavily focus on improving the South County site, and improve transportation to and from the college, with possible community group partnerships that can lend aid.
“Luckily there’s been a lot of conversation and concern with mental health right now, and so I think we just need to tap into that, and see where we’re at with Cuesta in expanding that,” Specht said, in regard to expanding mental health services on campus. “It’s gonna be about transportation, it’s gonna be about food, it’s gonna be about things that students need.”
In respect to journalism, Specht hopes to see The Cuestonian come back into print on campus, and understands that an expansion of the current journalism department, including a full-time faculty member which the program currently lacks, is needed and something she would support.
“Right now, the press and journalism plays an important role in democracy, and we’re at a time where we need to foster and provide those opportunities for students at Cuesta who want to pursue that,” Specht said.
Sysak refused to be interviewed for this story.