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San Mateo County community colleges scramble for funds after bond measure fails

By Emily DeRuy | 11 Nov 2011

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A new health and wellness center at the College of San Mateo includes a gym that was financed by local bond measures. (Photo: David Ruiz/Peninsula Press)

Confronted by a shrinking job market, more Californians than ever have turned to community colleges to train for new careers, causing the cash-strapped schools to ask taxpayers for help.

In San Mateo County on Tuesday, voters showed there is a limit to how much they are willing to pay for campus expansions.

Measure H, which sought to raise $564 million, failed to get the 55 percent of votes needed for passage. Voters rejected what would have amounted to an increase in property taxes after passing two other measures in the past 10 years that provided nearly $700 million in bonds to the San Mateo County Community College District.

Measure H would have financed upgrades to buildings and technology at the College of San Mateo, Cañada College and Skyline College.

Dr. Winston Acevedo, a veterinarian in Redwood City who owns the building in which he practices, said he voted against the measure because “they raised taxes twice” before. “You can’t keep doing that,” he said.

California Community College District spokeswoman Barbara Christensen said the defeat of the measure will harm modernization and halt planned construction projects.

“We had planned for a new science building at Cañada College, and enrollment in science is exploding,” she said. “Now, students may have a hard time getting the classes they need since building space is limited.”

Money from the two previous bond measures also went toward modernizing the campuses and increasing earthquake safety. In campaigning against Measure H, some opponents voiced displeasure at how some of that money was spent.

A new health and wellness center at the College of San Mateo, built as a direct result of bond money, is open to the community. School officials said the fees paid by gym users help students because the money goes back into funding additional classes. But some students argued that it’s a commuter campus and very few students use the gym.

“I’ve been in (the gym), but I’ve never used the actual facilities,” said College of San Mateo student Katherine Mibelli. She said the campus reminds her of an airport where people pass through without putting down roots. “I don’t see a great need for that area,” she said.

The College of San Mateo also finds itself pitted against a group of students and local residents in a battle over a garden on campus. Plans to remove Building 20, the horticulture building, and part of a nearby garden have resulted in a lawsuit filed by a group that contends the community college district did not perform a state-required environmental review.

The district said no review was needed because the project is a modification of the existing land. The district plans to preserve a portion of the garden while it adds a new parking lot, officials added.

“Building 20 will come down,” Christensen said of the structure that housed the now-defunct horticulture program. “The north garden will be maintained. Where the parking lot is going, teachers have asked for mini ecosystems to use for science classes.”

Shawn Kahn, one of the leaders of the student group dedicated to saving the only green space left from the original 1960s campus, said the entire garden area should be preserved, not just the northern section. He cited the controversy as a prime example of why he opposed Measure H.

“I’m hoping the defeat of Measure H will teach the board (of trustees) a lesson about how they spend money,” he said. “The garden will be maintained until a decision is reached by the court, but the board already voted to put in parking where the south garden is right now.”

Measure H supporter and newly elected Menlo Park Fire Protection District Board Member Virginia Chang-Kiraly said the bond measure’s defeat will leave the district unable to make needed improvements and additions to the three campuses.

“I think they will probably have to scramble to look for funds,” she said. “I hope they will at least be able to raise some money so that the buildings and infrastructure are upgraded to be a safe place for students.”

Peninsula Press staff writers Liz Clair and Elizabeth Hinckley contributed to this article.

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