We know Gov. Jerry Brown is busy. There’s a budget to revise, a high-speed rail system to construct and battles to fight against the Trump administration on trade, immigration and climate change.
But we have a simple request of the governor. Schedule a morning or afternoon for a visit to Firebaugh, population 8,300, on the west side of the Valley.
There, the governor will see eager students – many of whom are advancing their education while working and caring for their families – doing amazing things at a former bowling alley that is the North District Center.
The campus is part of West Hills Community College District, which under soon-to-retire Chancellor Frank Gornick, has earned a reputation for accelerating student achievement and trying new approaches to age-old challenges.
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Examples of how West Hills does things differently: It offers registration 365 days a year and encourages students to plan their schedules a year at a time. It regularly updates class offerings so that they mesh with in-demand jobs. And it partners with Fresno-based Bitwise to offer job training for software developers.
As it is, we’re confident that Brown already knows a thing or two about the West Hills district. It was the only community college district in California this spring to win two governor’s awards – totaling $3 million – for innovation in education. And it has won three governor’s awards in three years, the most in the state.
The rub is, innovation and technology will only take a campus so far. At some point, you need old-fashioned brick-and-mortar to accommodate student demand. That is the case at the North District Center, where the converted bowling alley isn’t big enough for the 500 students from Firebaugh, Mendota and other small west-side communities.
A new two-story, 25,000-square foot building has been on the drawing board since 2008 when voters overwhelmingly passed a local $11.8 million bond measure to support construction. About $6 million has been spent acquiring land. Now it’s the state’s turn to deliver $44.1 million for construction.
Fortunately, California voters in November passed Proposition 51. It provides $2 billion in construction bonds for community colleges and $7 billion for K-12 projects.
The North District Center is among 29 projects vetted and approved by the Chancellor’s Office of the California Community Colleges system. But the Brown administration has approved just nine of them.
We understand that Firebaugh is rural and its population is small. And that campuses in big cities like San Francisco and Long Beach have real needs, too.
But students in coastal California have many options for higher education. Students in these west-side towns, if not getting their education in Firebaugh, must travel about 50 miles one way to attend Fresno City College or Fresno State. The North District Center is their lifeline – and their launching pad – to a better life.
Thus, we ask the governor to contemplate what this project would mean to Firebaugh and its sister towns, which are among the poorest in California. Money spent there will provide benefits for decades in a region where 90 percent of K-12 students qualify for free school lunches, and their parents cope with double-digit unemployment.
“If the governor could see what he’s not funding, he would fund it,” Gornick told the Editorial Board last week.
Gov. Brown, juggle your schedule. The students of Firebaugh are well worth your time.
Should the state decide to bypass this much-needed project, we all can anticipate the result. Government’s ability to ignore the obvious is how poor communities stay poor.