Finally, good news about Firebaugh’s long-stalled college plans

A rendering of the proposed 25,000-square-foot, $44.1 million building that would expand the North District Center in Firebaugh. About 500 students attend the community college center.
A rendering of the proposed 25,000-square-foot, $44.1 million building that would expand the North District Center in Firebaugh. About 500 students attend the community college center. West Hills Community College District

There is reason to celebrate today in Firebaugh, a rural town of 8,300 residents in the heart of farm country west of Fresno.

Though there is much work ahead and more potential political battles to fight, the Legislature is beginning to fund a two-story, 25,000-square foot community college building there.

After failing to make the cut in initial discussions about California community college projects, the building in Firebaugh was added to the list last week and survived Thursday night’s budget battle in the Legislature. Specifically, Assembly Bill 97 provides $831,000 for preliminary planning of the project.

We suppose there’s a chance that Gov. Jerry Brown could use his line-item veto to kill the funding, but word from the Capitol is that Brown’s finance team and legislative leaders struck a deal to forward only those projects the governor was willing to approve.

Now here are some things you should know about Firebaugh, which is in the West Hills Community College District. About 500 students take classes there – in a former bowling alley. They outgrew the facility long ago, which is why voters in Firebaugh, Mendota and other small west-side communities overwhelmingly passed a local $11.8 million bond measure to support construction of a new building.

Even though the land has been purchased at a cost of $6 million, the project has been on hold since 2008 because the state has not held up its end of the deal. During that time, the estimated construction cost has increased to $44.1 million.

We urge the governor to turn Firebaugh’s educational dreams into reality in the next budget cycle by acessing some of the $2 billion in construction bonds for community colleges approved by voters last year in Proposition 51.

Yes, there are many worthwhile projects competing for these construction dollars. But students in coastal California have many options for higher education. Students in these overwhelmingly Hispanic 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 Firebaugh campus is their lifeline – and their launching pad – to a better life.

We ask the governor and the Legislature to contemplate what completing 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.

Additionally, innovation should be rewarded. West Hills Community College District has earned a reputation for accelerating student achievement and trying new approaches to age-old challenges. 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. And it regularly updates class offerings so that they mesh with in-demand jobs.

Finally, everyone in the Capitol should remember this: People in these west-side communities – 33.5% of whom live below the poverty level – voted to tax themselves a decade ago so that their children could get the education necessary to grab a piece of the California Dream.

The funding approved Thursday night is a start. The sooner these classrooms are completed the better for the families of west-side farmworkers.