Valley Voices

Miguel A. Arias and John Z. Leal: A blueprint for our community colleges

Sergio Hernandez sands the hood of a Volkswagen at the auto collision repair class at Fresno City College’s Career and Technology Center in 2014. State Center Community College District is partnering with the Fresno Business Council to assess vocational offerings for students.
Sergio Hernandez sands the hood of a Volkswagen at the auto collision repair class at Fresno City College’s Career and Technology Center in 2014. State Center Community College District is partnering with the Fresno Business Council to assess vocational offerings for students. Fresno Bee File Photo

State Center Community College District — a 50 year-old institution that oversees rural, urban and suburban community colleges and centers — is at a historical crossroad. We have the opportunity to become a more outcome-driven institution and leader of higher learning and career and technical education.

Over the next few months, our district will make three critical decisions that will set our trajectory for the next two decades: (1) hire a chancellor for State Center, (2) hire a president for Fresno City College, and (3) consider a staff proposal for potentially $500 million facilities bond in 2016.

The timing of these decisions will coincide with the receipt of millions of additional dollars from the state, for the purpose of increasing student access, success and equity.

The California State Community College Student Success Score Card, which measured the performance of our local community colleges, found that only 10% of our students transfer to a university in two years and another 40% take six years. Additionally, our vocational programs such as nursing, police and welding have long waiting lists for admission.

As a result, many of our students are being lured into private, for-profit vocational colleges with a promise of a job after completion without considering the overwhelming debt. These stark statistics need to be considered as we prioritize investing millions of additional funds in programming and facilities and hire new district leadership.

We should begin the process of identifying our facility bond projects on principles that will improve the state of our local community colleges. These principles are:

▪ Student success: The state increasingly has shifted the responsibility of funding facilities to us locally while holding us more accountable for student success. As a result, we are faced with competing requests that place academic buildings, performing arts centers, staff offices and vocational facilities pitted against one another. Our current and future work-force demands for vocational and academic programs should help shape our top facility priorities. In preparation, we have partnered with the Fresno Business Council to conduct an analysis of all of our vocational program offerings. This assessment, along with feedback from local K-12 districts and Fresno State, need to be considered with prioritizing facility investments.

▪ Equitable investments: An equitable approach in prioritizing bond investments should consider current enrollment more than projected future growth. For example, our 100-year-old campus, Fresno City College, serves almost two-thirds of SCCCD’s students; yet preliminary recommendations only propose replacing of one academic building. Meanwhile, the Willow Center is proposed to receive several academic buildings. Equally important, preliminary recommendations do not guarantee any new facility in south Fresno — SCCCD’s region with the highest level of poverty, an under-skilled workforce, and an under-educated community. This must be addressed in the final bond proposal.

▪ Fiscally sustainable: Simply put, the days of SCCCD constructing additional campuses and centers in isolation of local general plans should be retired. We must look at building facilities where people live and that are accessible via public transit. To date, we have built Madera Center and Willow International, and purchased 120 acres for a promised southeast Fresno Career Technology Center, all of which are not accessible to many of our students and would cost taxpayers millions more given the lack of infrastructure and connectivity. There are better options — partner with the city of Fresno to relocate our police and fire academies to modern existing public facilities and re-purpose our $30 million in the unspent 2002 facility bond to build a modern CTE facility with seamless K-12 programing in a public-transit corridor.

If we are to gain the necessary support our community colleges deserve, we need to begin with a process that includes stakeholders from our diverse at-large community. Additionally, input and guidance from K-12 and higher education is crucial. Every one of our students is counting on us to not only care, but to advocate on their behalf.

Help us embrace this historic crossroad by engaging with us as we hire new executive leadership and prioritize our facility investments. We invite all of you to participate in these critical decisions.

Miguel A. Arias represents Area 5 on the State Center Community College District Board of Trustees. John Z. Leal is the Area 3 trustee on the board.

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