Cost and Safety, or Politics?

A community college district abandons a program in Spain, citing terror and cost concerns. One trustee blames Spain's withdrawal of troops in Iraq.
March 7, 2005

For each of the last 14 years, Carmenmara Hernandez-Bravo has taken dozens of Saddleback College students to Spain for five weeks of language and cultural immersion. About 45 students were signed up to go this summer, too, but they apparently won't get the chance.

The Board of Trustees of the South Orange Community College District, of which Saddleback is a part, voted 5 to 2 last week not to approve the Spain trip scheduled for this summer. Much of the trustees' opposition focused on their concerns about the trip's  expense and whether Spain has become too unsafe because of terrorism, raising questions about whether the college was sufficiently insured. 

But what most jarred faculty members at the college were comments by the trustee who led the campaign to cancel the trip, Thomas Fuentes. Referring to Spain's stance on the war in Iraq, he said: "Spain has abandoned our fighting men and women, withdrawing their support," adding, "I see no reason to send students of our colleges to Spain at this moment in history."

Fuentes, who is active in Republican circles, was appointed by President Bush to serve on the Board of Directors of the Legal Services Corporation. He did not reply to an e-mail message seeking comment, and his home telephone number is unlisted. 

Another member of the board, Donald P. Wagner, said in an interview Sunday, "I know that Trustee Fuentes raised that issue, but to my knowledge it didn't play a role in anyone else's decision."

Wagner said he and others were primarily concerned about whether "students had been fully informed of the safety issues" surrounding the threat of terrorism in Spain, which was the scene of major train bombings in Barcelona a year ago.

Wagner said trustees were also troubled by the fact that the Spain trip costs students $4,400, noting that the board approved another study abroad trip scheduled this summer for Italy because it costs only $3,000. Wagner said he and others believed the trip may be "too expensive for the average student we serve to be able to take advantage of it."

Hernandez-Bravo disputes the board's accounting. She notes that the per-day cost of the five-week trip to Spain is $119, less than the $200 a day cost of the 14-day Italy trip (which doesn't include airfare), and that it is in fact the least expensive of the college's five study abroad trips.

She also notes that the board didn't raise a stink about last year's trip to Spain, which occurred just weeks after the train bombings.

Hernandez-Bravo says she does not share the view of some of her colleagues that Fuentes was punishing her for suggesting in a television interview last year that she would have flunked him for comments he made complaining about faculty members' light workload, "because before you speak in my class, you have to do your research."

She adds: "I don't believe that a public official like him would punish 45 students because of what I say on TV."

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