Education

$485 million bond for community college improvements goes to vote

A sign on the Clovis Community College campus promotes Measure C, which would raise taxes in order to provide State Center Community College District with $485 million in additional funding.
A sign on the Clovis Community College campus promotes Measure C, which would raise taxes in order to provide State Center Community College District with $485 million in additional funding. rappleton@fresnobee.com

Residents of four counties in the central San Joaquin Valley will decide on June 7 whether to approve a $485 million bond measure to improve the State Center Community College District.

The district believes that Measure C is essential to helping the 50,000 students at its five campuses in Fresno, Reedley, Oakhurst and Madera succeed. Officials say the bond would finally build a new fire and police academy, which were key points in its last bond in 2002, and fix nagging problems like parking at Fresno City College.

However, not everyone is convinced. At least one local political group is speaking out against the bond, saying it doesn’t actually promise anything due to the measure’s vague and broad language. They believe the price tag is far too steep.

It requires 55 percent of the total vote to pass.

The bond should not be confused with the half-cent sales tax levied in Fresno County for transportation upgrades. That Measure C was approved in 1986 and renewed for a second 20-year period in 2006.

The district said it chose the “C” because it stands for community colleges.

Paul Parnell took over as State Center Community College District chancellor in March. He previously was president of Norco College in Southern California.

“Literally, people’s careers and lives are at stake,” Parnell said. “Our district is the size of Connecticut and has some of the greatest poverty in the nation.

“Education is the key to lifting people out of this poverty,” he added.

The bond would raise property taxes by $18.50 per $100,000 of assessed value. The district would begin selling the bonds in 2016 and continue for up to 25 years. It estimates the total cost to repay the bonds is nearly $1 billion.

Parnell said that much of the bond would fund career and technical education. Police, fire and emergency medical personnel would be trained at the new academy.

The auto and maintenance training programs would be overhauled to ensure students are using the most up-to-date technology. Parnell hopes to partner with local businesses in these fields to help tailor the curricula to skills they look for in new employees.

These updates will be the district’s top priority if the bond passes, Parnell said. After that, the district would look at tackling the problematic parking situation at Fresno City and building a new center in west Fresno. Funding an academic village for student and staff to congregate at the Madera Center would be next, followed by building a new life science building and updating the existing agriculture science building in Reedley.

At the same time, the district would also look into finding an alternate site for its Oakhurst Center.

The last priority would be building a new math and science building at Fresno City, Parnell said. The existing building, which was built in 1973, does not have enough lab space. Expanding or renovating the building isn’t an option because of the old plumbing, electrical and mechanical systems. Several pipes have ruptured over the last few years, causing lengthy closures.

State Center would implement technology and infrastructure upgrades district-wide during the construction projects.

Former Chancellor Bill Stewart, who authored the first draft of the bond measure in September, assigned a specific portion of the $485 million to each project. Parnell did not, saying that construction costs, the economy, the bidding process and other factors will change so much in the next 25 years and render any such estimations useless.

Parnell also refused to say the district will build a $50 million parking structure at Fresno City – one of the major plans in the first draft. Instead, he promised only to alleviate some of the parking issues on the campus.

The plan, Parnell said, is to get the bond passed. After that, the district plans to meet with city, business and community leaders to brainstorm the best and most cost-efficient ways to get everything built.

An oversight committee consisting of district employees and community members would also be formed to monitor the bidding and other processes for each project.

It’s this reluctance to get into specifics that has ruffled the feathers of some local conservatives.

Tal Cloud, political director for the Fresno County Lincoln Club, hates the bond proposal.

“It’s too much money – over a billion when we pay it all back,” Cloud said. “And I don’t believe they will build what they say they will.”

Cloud said the district still hasn’t spent the money taxpayers provided in Measure E, the district’s 2002 bond, to build the academy.

District spokesman Lucy Ruiz said that’s true. The district has not yet sold $30 million in bonds because the state promised but never delivered an additional $54 million in funding needed to build the academy. Measure C would supply that missing funding, she said.

Cloud believes the bond was hastily written and “sneaked onto the ballot.”

“I don’t think we need a $50 million parking structure for Fresno City College or a performing arts building in Reedley,” he said.

He blames the district’s administrators – not aging or too-few facilities – for the campuses’ overcrowding issues.

“The city college system does a poor job of moving students through,” Cloud said.

According to district numbers, the completion rate for college-ready students (not taking remedial classes) is 66.1 percent. The unprepared rate is 33.4 percent. The state averages are 69.7 percent for prepared and 39.2 percent for unprepared students.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story indicated Chancellor Paul Parnell began working in January. He was hired in January and began working in March.

Measure K in Kings County

It’s a proposed  1/4 -cent sales tax for public safety that would benefit the sheriff’s department, city police departments and city and county fire departments.

It requires two-thirds voter approval for passage and would raise an estimated $4 million per year.

It would go into effect Jan. 1, unless the current statewide Prop. 30  1/4 -cent sales tax, due to expire at the end of the year, is extended after Jan. 1.

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