Some Valley residents may remember Measure E, a bond passed in 2002 that funded repairs and improvements at community colleges in Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare Counties. Now, 14 years later, the community college district is asking for money—on an even bigger ballot measure.
The chemistry department at Fresno City College is a model for shrewd, pragmatic use of space. Every inch of stacked shelves, stuffed cabinets and crucial counter space is in use. Chemistry professor Seth Yates says as more students enroll, and safety regulations call for more equipment, the limiting factor is space.
“We’re just taking loads of stuff out of here, whatever we can get rid of, all the time,” Yates says, “and we still can’t find storage space for the stuff that we need.”
The school even bought lab stools specially made to be extra narrow, foldable and stackable.
“We're just out of options,” he says. “We're pushed to the edges right now, and without doing some major renovations or something like that, there's just no way to use the space any better than we have.”
The building has other problems, too. “We have asbestos in the building,” says Bill Stewart, the interim chancellor of the State Center Community College District, which includes City College and four other schools in the San Joaquin Valley. “It is safe, we have it contained, we have it sealed off, but it has to be replaced.”
That’s why Stewart and the district introduced ballot Measure C. It’s a $485 million bond that aims to replace and repair old buildings throughout the district—like portable classrooms in Fresno City College’s police academy in the southeast and the Oakhurst campus of Reedley Community College. And the measure isn’t just about classrooms—Reedley would get a new performing arts center, and a new garage would help solve Fresno City College’s pesky parking problem.
“We haven't really sold you a parking permit there; we've sold you a hunting permit,” says Stewart of Fresno City College, where 20,000 students must compete for roughly 3,000 parking spots. “I don't know if you've ever been there but you can't park, and so there's $50 million set aside to solve that problem.”
Stewart says these improvements are essential because of the sheer volume of students that cycles through these community colleges.
“We're a very large district. We're as big as the state of Connecticut. We have 1/300th of the people that live in the United States are in our district and we serve 50,000 students,” says Stewart.
Measure C essentially amounts to a property tax. For every $100,000 of property value, taxes would increase by $18.50.
“For the average homeowner in our district, it is about $38 a year,” he says. “That's a Starbucks cup of coffee a month, so it's pennies a day in order to provide this opportunity for our students.”
It’s true that these schools are important. They’re the only educational option many people have here in the valley, and they’re feeder schools for 4-year colleges and universities throughout the state. But is Measure C the best way to improve these schools? Tal Cloud doesn’t think so.
“I think it was hastily put on the ballot, without a lot of public comment,” says Cloud, political director at the conservative business group The Lincoln Club of Fresno County. “The ballot language is very loose and fast, and quite frankly, I think the priorities they have chosen are not positive for the community.”
He particularly disagrees with taxpayer money going toward a parking garage.
He’s right that not all the proposed projects have precise budgets, yet, and it’s not clear which ones would take priority. He points to 2002’s Measure E as a much more transparent community college measure. Plus, he says, factoring in bond interest, Measure C could end up costing much more than $485 million.
“The reality is, we should find ways to maximize existing campuses and find ways to move kids through the system,” says Cloud. “So many of the community colleges, they have people that are in class that aren't moving forward, and that's what they need to be focusing on.”
Measure C will appear on the ballot on June 7 in parts of Fresno, Madera, Kings and Tulare Counties.