Almanac

Cover Story - October 12, 2011

Voter Guide: $564 million bond measure on community college district ballot

by Dave Boyce

Operating funds for the three community colleges in San Mateo County are so scarce that the college district is turning away "many thousands" of students, Richard Holober, the district board president told the Almanac.

Measure H, on the ballot for the November election, asks voters, including those from Menlo Park, Woodside, Atherton and Portola Valley, to approve a $564 million bond measure to upgrade facilities on the campuses.

Because it is a school bond measure and because spending would be overseen by a committee of citizen volunteers, state law permits passage with a 55 percent voter approval instead of the two-thirds majority needed for most taxes.

The measure would include use of bond funds to replace some $2 million in annual operating expenses that has been used to maintain facilities, enabling the district to enroll between 6,000 and 7,000 more students, about 10 percent of whom would be full-time, Mr. Holober said in a telephone interview.

The district's three colleges are Canada College in Woodside, Skyline College in San Bruno, and the College of San Mateo in San Mateo. Measure H would be the third request for capital improvement funds since 2001.

The previous measures raised $675 million, but all three campuses still have classroom buildings that are 40 to 50 years old, Mr. Holober said.

If Measure H passes, according to its tax rate statement, residential and commercial property owners in the district will pay approximately $12.92 a year for every $100,000 of a property's assessed value for the life of the bonds, typically 30 years.

For a home valued at $1.5 million, that works out to $194 per year, interest not included. Also not included are the debts from earlier bond measures for this school district and others.

A ballot argument signed by members of the Libertarian party and the Silicon Valley Taxpayers' Association claims Measure H will raise the debt obligation per household by between $5,500 and $10,000, including interest.

"San Mateo County families are already struggling in this economy," the argument says. "The last things they need right now are more taxes and more debt."

A survey showed the measure winning the support of about 70 percent of voters, board member Karen Schwarz told the Almanac.

And if it doesn't pass? "We have renovated a lot of our facilities," Mr. Holober said. "We still have a long way to go. Obviously, we will do our best. We will continue to operate."

Why not wait for the economy to recover before making this request of voters? "When the economy declines, the demand for community college goes up," Mr. Holober replied.

That inverse relationship also applies to the unemployment rate, he said. As that rises, more working adults turn to community colleges for retraining. Fifty percent of teachers also get their start at community colleges, according to a ballot argument for Measure H.

Four-year public institutions also have fewer spaces. The University of California and the California State University systems eliminated 45,000 freshman seats, Mr. Holober said.

"They've just sort of very glibly said, 'Oh, they can just go to community colleges,'" he said. "Students are just pounding down our doors."

The district, in its second year of having to turn away students for lack of funds, has never had to take this step before, he said.

Go to tinyurl.com/CCC-bond for a pdf with more information on the bond measure proposal.

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