Come March, local residents will get the opportunity to vote on two funding measures for Foothill and De Anza colleges: a bond measure and a parcel tax.
At a Nov. 25 meeting, the Foothill-De Anza Community College District Board of Trustees unanimously approved placing both on the March ballot. The $898 million bond measure would authorize a property tax increase of $16 per $100,000 of assessed value. The parcel tax would levy a $48 tax per parcel for five years, raising approximately $5.5 million annually.
Trustee Peter Landsberger said at last week’s meeting that the two measures combined are necessary to guarantee the colleges can offer high-quality, low-cost education.
“This is not something we do lightly or frequently,” Landsberger said. “This is something we do when the need is clearly demonstrated.”
Voters approved the district’s last bond in 2006 with the passage of Measure C, which raised $490 million for the community college district. In 2010, the district sought a $69 parcel tax, which would have raised approximately $7 million annually for six years. However, the measure failed to garner the necessary two-thirds vote, receiving only 58%.
What each will support
Although the bond and parcel tax will be on the same ballot in March, they address different areas of need.
The bond would go toward upgrading, repairing and constructing facilities. The money can’t be spent on faculty and administrator salaries, or other operating expenses.
The parcel tax would be used for an array of purposes, including attracting and retaining faculty, maintaining programs, expanding mental health services and providing programs for students facing food and housing insecurity. The funds can be used for staff and faculty salaries, but not to pay administrators.
The bond measure requires 55% approval to pass, while the parcel tax needs two-thirds support.
The district has never run a bond and parcel tax election concurrently before. However, Chancellor Judy Miner said the district decided to move forward with both at once in part because polling indicated there was public support for the measures.
The district commissioned a survey conducted via telephone in August, and results showed 69% of respondents expressed support for a bond. Support meant responding they would “definitely” or “probably” vote “yes” or were “undecided, lean yes.” For the parcel tax, that number was 73%.
At a board meeting last month, Susan Cheu, the vice chancellor of business services, presented a list of capital project and equipment needs totaling more than $1.5 billion. Some of those needs would be paid for with the bond.
The projects Cheu presented included improving accessibility for students with disabilities; upgrading electrical, mechanical and sewer systems; decarbonizing the district; and offering affordable student and employee housing.
Multiple public commenters raised the topic of housing at last week’s meeting. A number of students and faculty members spoke about the challenge of finding affordable places to live.
Daniel Solomon, a part-time anthropology instructor at De Anza, said he and his wife, who teaches part time at Foothill, are living in a renovated barn in unincorporated San Mateo County.
“FHDA provides us with the majority of our income and despite that, we cannot live in this area,” Solomon said. “We cannot afford to live where we work.”
In an interview, Miner pointed to student and employee housing as an area the bond could help support. That doesn’t necessarily mean constructing housing, it could also mean acquiring space or signing on to other initiatives, she said.
The district has already pledged $600,000 toward an employee housing project Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors President Joe Simitian is spearheading in Palo Alto.
The district also is aiming to build housing, as well as a performance space, on the site of the Flint Center at De Anza College, which the board voted to permanently close last June. However, Miner said Flint Center construction is being considered separately from the bond. The district hopes to partner with a private developer or other investor on that project.
Landsberger said at the meeting that he was worried about the risk of conflating the bond with replacing the Flint Center and the housing issue more broadly. Student and staff housing is important and must be addressed regardless of the bond, he said, adding that the bond is much bigger than housing alone.
“It is broad enough to contribute to the housing issue, but it is not solely dedicated to the housing issue,” Landsberger said. “The public, I think, does not want to get the impression that we’re moving away from being in the education business to being in the housing business.”
Tight budget conditions
In recent years, the community colleges have faced declining enrollment and tight budgets. Over the past three years, the district has cut $17.6 million.
“I can say with absolute assurance that these two colleges are among the best, if not the best, in the state of California,” Landsberger said in an interview. “But they are threatened, and the threat comes in the form of inadequate state financing.”
In California, the state uses a formula to calculate a base funding level for each district. If enrollment fees and local property taxes don’t cover that amount, the state fills in the rest. If the property taxes push a district above the state calculation, it gets to keep the extra.
Other area community college districts fall into the latter category. Foothill-De Anza, on the other hand, doesn’t receive enough property tax revenue to hit the state funding level, so the state fills in the gap. According to Landsberger, that is because the district has a larger student population, which pushes the state funding calculation higher. However, property taxes aren’t linked to enrollment and don’t correspondingly increase.
“It’s a function of our success that we are in this position,” he said. “It’s not a function of property values being less than surrounding districts. It’s that we’ve been so much more successful in attracting students.”
In the 2018-2019 school year, the district’s headcount totaled 58,390, down from a peak of 78,913 students in the 2008-2009 year. As the student population falls, so too does the funding the district receives from the state.
At last week’s meeting, Trustee Laura Casas said enrollment is cyclical, and when the economy is good, enrollment goes down, whereas during a recession, enrollment spikes.
“We have to be ready for the next recession,” Casas said. “The next recession will hit, so we have to be prepared with quality education when that happens.”