Staff, students and faculty at the College of Santa Fe ended the year in pretty much the same shape they began: uncertain of the future.

A deal that would have put the financially-beleaguered CSF under the ownership of Laureate Education, Inc. fell apart just as students left campus for Thanksgiving break.

In a private interview with SFR, CSF President Dr. Stuart Kirk said Laureate’s corporate structure capped how much it could spend on acquisitions and that it could not work out terms with the banks holding the college’s debt. The college had approximately $30 million in debt and estimated deferred maintenance in the millions as well, but, in the end, the Laureate deal fell apart over a few million dollars. Because Laureate funded the school through the summer and into the fall, CSF now must add approximately $2.5 million to its debt—the amount it now owes to Laureate.

But willful intervention by Gov. Bill Richardson led to new options. After two tense weeks, Kirk announced on Dec. 9 the school had entered official discussions with Highlands. The goal is for the private, arts-focused college to begin the fall ’09 semester as a state college. Current Highlands President James Fries was president of CSF for 14 years, until 2000.

“We were not in this financial condition when I was there as president previously,” Fries says, effectively laying blame on the administrations that came after he left and before Kirk began.

Highlands President James Fries says if the university acquires the College of Santa Fe, it will maintain an arts focus and safeguard the presence of the Santa Fe Art Institute, which leases property from CSF.

According to Laura Mulry, director of communications for the state Department of Higher Education, in order for CSF to become a state school, the Highlands Board of Regents must agree to pursue the bond, then take its case to the Capital Projects Committee at the Higher Education Department, which would then have to take the bond proposal to the state finance board.

At the same time, CSF will need to be included in the upcoming legislative "instructional budget process," the Legislature will have to agree to fold CSF into the state funding formula for colleges, and the executive branch will need to sign off as well.

If all that happens, Mulry says CSF could receive state funding in July of 2009, when the next fiscal year begins.

It's far from a foregone conclusion. In a careful, possibly pre-emptive, letter sent on Dec. 10, state Cabinet Secretary of Higher Education Reed Dasenbrock makes his case for a four-year state school in Santa Fe and for colleges to think cooperatively, rather than competitively.

Santa Fe Mayor David Coss says CSF can count on city support. "The College of Santa Fe is a critically important institution in Santa Fe and a key component of Santa Fe's development as a creative economy," Coss says, pointing out that City Councilor Patti Bushee introduced a resolution to express the Council's support for the college. "I believe the community of Santa Fe will be even better served by a public college under the state's higher education system," he adds.

But the spring semester at CSF will be short-staffed. On Friday, Dec. 12, 20 staff positions were cut and more may be necessary.

Special Projects Director and CSF alumna Carol Carpenter, whose position was terminated, brushed aside the unfortunate holiday timing. "Even though this will be tough for students returning in the spring, they need to know the cuts weren't timed to deceive them but to avoid more undue stress during finals week," she says.

Carpenter says student involvement in the state's process could make all the difference. "I'm proud of how students have stepped up as leaders this semester, and it's essential they continue doing so through the legislative session. I'm looking forward to further mentoring them as an alum in our online communities, and I invite other alums to step up and do the same: Don't be a slacker artist right now, be a responsible activist—our students need you."