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Editor's note: This is an excerpt from an article in the August/September edition of the Community College Journal, the bimonthly magazine of the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
The two campuses that make up the West Valley-Mission Community College District (WVMCCD) in northern California’s Santa Clara County share a history typical of many community colleges across the country. Its buildings were constructed in the 1960s and ’70s, and like many public structures of that vintage, today they bear the ravages of time—in need of routine maintenance and, in many cases, extensive renovations or even complete replacement.
Finding money and support for massive public infrastructure upgrades is never easy. It is especially difficult in the shadow of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. A lack of funding has forced governments at every level to make tough choices, cutting capital spending for everything from highways to bridges to municipal buildings, and in particular the types of infrastructure upgrades most needed by the nation’s community colleges.
“Several buildings at West Valley College require a full retrofit to make them function over the years ahead, to bring in new technologies and to adequately serve the instructional needs of our faculty and students,” says former WVMCCD chancellor John Hendrickson. At Mission College, engineers have determined that its core academic building needs to be demolished and replaced to meet academic requirements and comply with seismic construction codes in earthquake-prone Silicon Valley.
“Due to the strain on use of our usual revenue sources, however, building upgrades and renovations have not been possible,” he says.
Hendrickson, who retired in June, determined that the best solution was to raise capital funds through a local bond measure.
“We developed a [construction] plan and presented it to our elected board of trustees, who agreed to place a $350-million bond measure on the June 5 ballot,” he says. Measure C, as it was called, passed with a nearly 60 percent affirmative vote—no small feat in a state wrestling with a multi-billion dollar debt and deep cuts in education.
In the same boat
Hendrickson is among hundreds of community college administrators nationwide grappling with the dilemma of providing 21st-century education and job training in aging classrooms, laboratories, lecture halls, technical centers and other facilities, with scant state and local funds to pay for upgrades.
As pressure mounts on the nation’s two-year career and technical colleges to boost completion rates and resuscitate local economies through improved job training, the situation will likely get worse before it gets better.
The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) estimates that community colleges currently face $100 billion in unmet infrastructure needs.
“When funding is squeezed, infrastructure tends to be one of the first things to go, simply because it’s not quite so pressing as taking care of students in a classroom,” says David Baime, AACC’s senior vice president for government relations and research.
Even so, Baime says, community colleges are finding ways to procure money for infrastructure projects.
“Sometimes they float bonds; sometimes they get direct appropriations [from states and local sponsors]; sometimes they get business partners to help finance their buildings. It can take a lot of jockeying, because when funding comes from the state, there is competition between colleges to finance projects. They may have priority lists for funding. The colleges have to agree amongst themselves who’s going to be first in line. Related to that, a lot of our colleges feel that it’s disproportionate to what four-year colleges receive.”
That’s the situation facing the 14 independent community colleges in Pennsylvania, which separately vie for capital dollars through the state’s department of education. Gov. Tom Corbett recently signed a $22.7-billion state budget for the 2012-13 fiscal year, including $46 million for infrastructure projects at community colleges—a fraction of the nearly $800 million in capital needs, according to Anna Weitz, president of Reading Area Community College (RACC).
“The 14 colleges allocate that money among ourselves, using a framework we developed for bondable projects, which tend to exceed $1 million, and we issue bonds to the individual colleges,” she says.
The multilayered framework takes into consideration a range of criteria, including shovel-readiness of a project and its centrality to academics. “For instance, we support new science labs over storage garages,” says Weitz.
But the state capital pool covers only 50 percent of the cost, leaving community colleges to raise the other half.
“That is not the case, however, for the state university system’s 14 schools,” Weitz explains. “The state pays 100 percent for those projects. The tremendous disparity…has been incredible.”
Despite its disadvantages, the 40-year-old RACC does its best to maintain the 10.5-acre campus’s seven buildings, four of which are repurposed structures, including the main academic building, retrofitted into an old Holiday Inn. Weitz says her No. 1 priority is to build a new 30,000- to 40,000-square-foot academic building, primarily to house the school’s expanding health program, which is closely aligned with Reading’s two large hospitals.
“There’s not a dollar in the state coffers for me to apply for right now,” says Weitz, who estimates the cost of the building at between $6 million and $7 million, though she thinks she can raise as much as half of that through RACC’s privately funded foundation.
Have a back-up plan
Like Weitz, Steven Ender, president of Grand Rapids Community College (GRCC) in Michigan, has been forced to get creative in the quest to upgrade his campus for the 21st century. Over the past four years, the college has issued bonds to purchase and renovate former Davenport University in downtown Grand Rapids for $12 million, received $5 million from the state to upgrade its main academic building, and raised $15.2 million through its capital campaign for infrastructure improvements.
“Still, we have $36 million in deferred maintenance on the campus,” Ender says.
To cover that bill, plus subsidize upgrades of other needy campus buildings—one nearly 100 years old—“we went to the voters in May, trying to get a $97-million bond referendum passed.”
It didn’t go well.
“We got crushed,” Ender says of the ballot referendum. “I came to work the next day thinking about Plan B, because the $36 million in deferred maintenance is real. I’m talking about windows, boilers, fire suppression, elevators and other physical assets."
Giving up was not an option. Ender worked with the college’s board of trustees to approve a facilities fee beginning this fall—$100 per semester for full-time students, $60 for part-time students—which will generate an estimated $2.8 million a year. In June, GRCC sold $28 million in local bonds.
“We have a responsibility with this physical plant to protect these assets,” Ender says. "Every year you put off deferred maintenance and building renovations, you add another inflation number to the cost. The No. 1 priority for me is the physical assets of the college and our accreditation of programs, No. 2 is the faculty and staff, and No. 3 is the students. If I don’t do a good job with Nos. 1 and 2, I’m not going to be able to offer a quality education.”
When Andrew Matonak became president of Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in New York in 2005, he rolled out a $200-million facilities master plan and has been chipping away at it ever since.
“We recognized that Hudson Valley had suffered from that our facilities really needed to be upgraded,” he says of the main campus’ 21 structures, many built in the early 1960s. “This came at a time when enrollment was off the charts, so we had additional [tuition] revenue and could direct operating dollars to cover some facilities needs.”
With an enrollment of around 13,500, HVCC is currently constructing a new $35-million science center and has allocated an additional $17 million to renovate existing science buildings to add classrooms, offices, and student spaces.
“We’ve also remodeled our campus center and library, built an administration building, and created a quad from a gravel parking lot in the middle of campus,” Matonak says.
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