Over the last decade California's community college system has become more important than ever in offering an affordable college education and vocational training option.
As tuition costs for the state's two university systems have steadily risen, out of reach of lower and many middle income families, community colleges offer both an educational safety net and an automatic path after two years to a UC or CSU campus. Specialty job training programs in fields such as nursing, science, technology and emergency medical services allow those unable to afford universities to obtain the job skills and certifications necessary to compete for well-paying jobs.
We are fortunate to have two outstanding community college districts on the Peninsula, and much of their success stems from the investment taxpayers have made through past bond measures and parcel taxes. These have allowed colleges to maintain, improve and build needed facilities, attract outstanding faculty and staff and maintain affordability for students.
Through six campuses, the Foothill-De Anza Community College District and the San Mateo County Community College District together serve about 100,000 students, many who hold full- or part-time jobs while attending school.
Measures G and H on the March 3 ballot ask for voter approval of a nearly $900 million bond measure (G) and a $48 per year parcel tax (H) for the Foothill-De Anza Community College District, which includes Palo Alto, Stanford, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Cupertino and parts of Saratoga.
Measure G, which would be the largest school bond in county history, is estimated to cost property owners approximately $16 per $100,000 of assessed valuation for the next 34 years, or $400 per year on a parcel with an assessed valuation (not market value) of $2.5 million. It requires 55% of the vote to pass, and funds can only be used for new facilities or major upgrades to the existing infrastructure. No money can be spent on personnel or operations. The Foothill-De Anza trustees have developed a list of potential projects that range from important maintenance of existing facilities, such as new roofs and upgrades to ventilation and heating systems, to the possibility of developing badly needed student and faculty housing.
Measure H is a flat-rate $48 parcel tax that would generate about $5.5 million annually to be used for operations, including the expansion of programs serving students, compensation of faculty and staff in order to retain and attract them in the Peninsula's challenging housing and employment market and to fund mental health and other services for struggling students. Measure H needs a two-thirds vote to pass and will last for five years.
Critics of these measures argue that because enrollment in community colleges has steadily declined as the economy has recovered from the Great Recession, the focus should be on cutting programs and closing facilities, not improving them. They ignore the fact that the number of students moving on to the UC or CSU system to obtain university degrees has steadily increased, as has the number of certificates and degrees awarded by the community colleges. The reasons for this disparity may be that housing costs have driven some to leave the area and that the need to support themselves or family has led some part-time students to set aside education plans in order to work two jobs.
The size of the bond measure is ambitious and asking a lot of voters given the number of other tax measures that will be appearing on local ballots in elections this year. But local voters have a strong history of supporting bond measures and parcel taxes for education, and polls indicate both of these measures should be able to gain the needed support.
In 1999, Foothill-De Anza district voters approved a $248 bond measure by a 72% margin and in 2006 they approved a $491 million bond with 66% vote.
The cost of living, income inequality and the high cost of a university education have created huge obstacles to young people launching successful lives, especially in a Bay Area economy so driven by high tech and dominated by a highly educated workforce. A vibrant community college system is an essential safety net and path to opportunity for those whose options are limited, and voters should ensure it continues to thrive.