With hopes of improving access for students and faculty at the gym on the College of San Mateo campus, community college officials moved toward finding a new operator for the San Mateo Athletic Club.

The San Mateo County Community College District Board of Trustees voted 4-1, with board President Thomas Nuris dissenting, to begin negotiations with gym operation company Power Wellness during a meeting Monday, Dec. 21.

The decision marks a shift in direction for officials whose relationship with current gym operator Exos started to sour due to concerns that the company favored its paid base of clients over the needs of the school community.

Recognizing the obligation of a public school district to always prioritize students, teachers, faculty and other educational endeavors, trustees expressed their frustration that those values seemed at odds with the interests of Exos.

“The profit-generating opportunity gets primacy all too often over the needs of our students,” said board Vice President Richard Holober.

The direction for Chancellor Mike Claire and his staff to begin discussions with Power Wellness does not mark the end of the district’s relationship with Exos. Officials also agreed to exercise a 90-day contact extension with the gym’s current operator, granting additional time for the district to examine which company it prefers. The gym is open and operating outside in adherence to COVID regulations.

The district’s contract with Exos is slated to expire at the end of the month, barring the three-month extension. Officials spent the better part of the year discussing terms of the gym contract, which included a request for proposals that led to Power Wellness and Exos being identified as the two preferred finalists.

Whichever company the board picks after the three-month extension could only be with the district for a short term as trustees shared some interest in the school system ultimately absorbing all of the gym’s operations.

To that end, trustees instructed Claire and his administrative team to discuss terms of contract with Power Wellness spanning only 15 months, giving officials a chance to determine whether it is in the district’s best interest to take on responsibility of running the gym.

Officials noted allowing Power Wellness to craft a potential contract also strengthens the district’s bargaining position, since previously only negotiations with Exos had reached that advanced stage. As contract discussions build, trustees urged administrators focus on identifying ways Power Wellness would prioritize education programs.

Support for the board’s direction was not universal as Nuris disagreed that the school community’s interests were not served by Exos.

“I really do not believe the college and administration have put students in the backseat here,” he said.

Additionally, Nuris noted that the revenue generated by the membership at the club under Exos helped the district finance education initiatives it may have otherwise struggled to afford. Claiming the gym has made as much as $8 million for the district, Nuris identified the bookstores, Promise Scholars program and other education initiatives as those that have benefited from the existing contract.

“Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water,” said Nuris.

His support for the existing operator matched with a handful of Exos employees who during public comment shared their pleasant experience working at the gym. Those arguments were countered by some gym users, who raised concerns with the way the facility was run.

Ultimately, differences of opinion over daily operations were secondary to reservations regarding whether the school community was the top priority at the gym.

“This is the time to really embrace what the public mission is of the community colleges. We need to start there and move out after we have met those needs, and it doesn’t feel like we are there yet,” said Trustee Lisa Petrides.

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(1) comment

Michael B. Reiner, PhD

Good point - "Ultimately, differences of opinion over daily operations were secondary to reservations regarding whether the school community was the top priority at the gym."

I wrote to the Board on March 10, 2020 about SMAC (though I never received even an acknowledgement), as one apparent reason for its existence is to provide revenue to the District not available elsewhere. I believe President Nuris's statement about $8 million is urban legend, as it implies such money is available annually. I have reviewed years of budget reports.

BOARD REPORT NO. 20-3-1C in 2020 indicated that $694,517 from SMAC net income supported college programs (Promise, WEZ, KCSM, BAPA Scholarships, Skyline President's Breakfast, Canada Presidents Luncheon). This is a healthy sum and indicates that SMAC'S enterprise function “In accordance with District Strategic Plan Goal 4, the San Mateo Athletic Club (SMAC) contributes to generating financial resources that support educational programs beyond that which is available from community and state allocations.”

However, were funding alternatives for these “supported college programs” ever considered? SMAC's $694,517 for college support is only 0.004% of the District’s $187,000,000 budget. SMCCCD is among the best funded districts in the state. No doubt, the small contribution to college funds from all the work and effort involving SMAC could have been obtained via reallocation of current resources or sunsetting ineffective programs.

Then again, if SMAC is not providing substantial resources to the district, why is a taxpayer funded facility being used for a private, members only, athletic club? The bond measures that financed gym construction did not make clear that public money would be used for anything other than educational purposes. 

Let's hope the new Board redirects attention from enterprise activities and more and more construction to improving the graduation rate, as only 20% of students complete on time. Therefore, four-out-of-five are left behind to drop out, stop out, or drag along for years. What a waste of human potential, public resources, and precious time.

-- Michael B. Reiner, PhD, is a higher education consultant and educational researcher. Previously, he was a professor of psychology and college administrator at City University of New York (CUNY), Miami Dade College, the Riverside Community College District, and the San Mateo County Community College District. mreiner32205@gmail.com  LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/michael-b-reiner-phd-14057551/

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