Deciding Not to Ask
Amid fears of a possible “double-dip” recession and simmering anti-tax sentiment, community colleges with pressing facilities needs are deciding they cannot risk a defeat in a bond vote – and so are not going before voters on this November’s ballot to ask for the funds to properly address them.
For example, after months of testing the electoral waters, the Board of Trustees of the West Valley-Mission Community College District, located in California’s Silicon Valley, recently voted down a plan to put a referendum on the November ballot for a bond issue that could have been as large as $400 million. The trustees wholeheartedly agreed that the money was desperately needed to upgrade and replace aging buildings. But, as one trustee put it at the June meeting, “I don’t think the timing could be any worse.”
The trustees’ decision comes in spite of the results of a recent district-wide survey of voters that revealed support for a $400 million bond, and slightly more support for a $200 million bond – in both cases, above the 55 percent supermajority required to pass bond referendums in California. This local support comes on the heels of a successful campaign for a $235 million bond in 2004. Additionally, the district survey reported that 70 percent of the participants “would oppose an increase to property taxes unless the revenue is used only for critically needed projects that support important academic objectives.” There is no doubt in the minds of some district officials that the projects identified for bond money are “critically needed.”
District staff reports note that one of the main classroom buildings on the campus of West Valley College, originally built in 1968, is “unsafe,” “inefficient in energy consumption” and “structurally unsound.” The learning resource center there, originally built in 1972, also “has over a dozen leaks in the ceiling which have damaged books and have caused mold to grow in the stacks." At Mission College, there is also a three-year-old, board-approved plan to replace the main academic building that has yet to be enacted.
John Hendrickson, district chancellor, acknowledged that he would rather have the funds now than later. Still, he does not second-guess the trustees’ decision – saying that they are in a better position than he to judge the electoral climate – and agrees with their determination that it will be better to try again for a bond referendum in 2012.
“We would be best serving our students by telling those bonds to produce revenue ASAP,” Hendrickson said. “But we will continue to fund major maintenance needs in order to carry us through until those bond monies become available. The board members are concerned about not adding any tax pressure on the local economy right now.”
No matter what the economy looks like in two years, Hendrickson remains confident locals will support a bond referendum. If anything, he thinks his college’s lack of an annual tax levy for operational needs – only one of the 72 districts in California levies a local property tax – makes voters in his district more likely to support the occasional bond measure.
“The voting public can more easily put their tax dollars into facilities and equipment than wages,” Hendrickson argued. “We always must be frugal and efficient with tax dollars that are used so that the public has faith that you’ve been smart with their money.”
West Valley-Mission is hardly alone in failing to get a bond on this November’s ballot. It is just one of the few districts where the debate to discuss the possibility made it to the public sphere.
Scott Lay, president of the Community College League of California, mused that some districts in his state ditched the idea long before there could have been formal discussion about it. For example, he noted that when West Valley-Mission officials asked around if any of their colleagues were strongly considering a bond, so that they could provide guidance to their own board months ago, there were no responses. Typically in a state as large as California, several districts have bond campaigns in the works before any election.
“When you’re cutting back on faculty and staff – even though there are separate pots of funds – it’s a hard message to say, 'Let's build some new buildings,' ” said Lay, adding that such discussion nipped talk of a statewide community college facilities bond in the bud months ago.
Economics difficulties of California aside, a poor overall economy does not necessarily mean that community college bond passage is impossible all over the country.
J. Noah Brown, president of the Association of Community College Trustees, said he thinks voters are typically “pretty supportive of and sympathetic to supporting education and community college,” arguing that such pleas for funds are generally less divisive by political ideology than other electoral issues.
“I think it really comes down to how well the board and president understand where the community is on something,” Brown said. “In most instances, boards or presidents won’t want to move forward with a referendum unless it has a good chance of passing.”