Getting to ‘yes’ on general obligation bonds

Supporters gather in California to advocate for Proposition 51.

On election night 2012, MiraCosta College leaders in California’s San Diego County watched as returns rolled in for Proposition EE, the college’s $497 million capital-improvements general obligation bond measure.

It was close, but leaders could sense they were inches away from the 55 percent of the vote they needed for the bond to pass.

Unfortunately, that’s where the measure stayed, garnering just 54.84 percent of the vote — some 200 votes shy of what leaders needed to expand science labs, upgrade systems and comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other things.

“The experience of failing at 54.84 percent was motivating,” says Charlie Ng, MiraCosta’s vice president of business and administrative services.

It was so motivating, in fact, that when the college put another, smaller measure in 2016, they bulked up the phone banking and leaders like Ng made a second job of going out into the community to educate voters about the college and the bond. The general feeling, he said was, “We have got to make sure we uncover every stone.”

It worked. In November, the bond passed with 60 percent of the vote.

“We are so grateful,” Ng says. “No one really knows how long it’s been [since we last had a bond].”

On the most recent Election Day, voters approved at least $2.8 billion worth of new general obligation bonds for community college capital improvements. Bonds are a staple of college financing, funding everything from capital programs to workforce development. But approval is never assured.

To get to yes, college leaders must amplify the college-community connection. While they are prohibited from campaigning, officials can provide information. As they do so, they build relationships that can benefit the college, community and economy for years to come.

But that requires more than tireless hours on the road. It requires a plan and leadership. College leaders make the connections, advocate for their college if not the bond measure itself and build relationships that deliver successful bond measures.

Starting at the top

When Sandra Kurtinitis took over the presidency of the Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) in 2005, the 60,000-student institution hadn’t had a bond for a decade. And the college’s oldest buildings were showing their age.

“Fifty is not a bad age for a person,” she says, “but it is bad for a building.”

So within two months at CCBC, she headed to Annapolis, Maryland’s capital. Three days a week, she says, she was at the statehouse, talking to legislators about putting CCBC in their budgets, with an eye toward its first bond measure in years. If the state provided half the money, she could ask the county council to float a ballot measure to provide the rest through a general obligation bond.

This article is an excerpt from the current issue of the Community College Journal, published by the American Association of Community Colleges since 1930.

By spring, voters had approved CCBC’s first general obligation bond measure in a decade, clearing the way for a new library at CCBC’s Catonsville campus. Since then, every time CCBC has asked for a bond, the state and then the county council have approved the ballot measure and the public has voted yes, including a $15 million bond approved in November. The college is steadily working through a $220 million capital improvement plan.

“We’ve got way more to go, but the key piece for us is to secure county funding through a bond bill,” Kurtinitis says. “We never could have accomplished the 50 percent funding from the state if we didn’t have the goodwill and funding from these bonds.”

And while Kurtinitis says that the goodwill between the campuses and their communities predated her arrival, the lobbying she does at both the statehouse and the county seat has been essential. It’s meant dedicated face time with officials, and sometimes going to events hosted by important players, even when she’d rather be at home curled up with a movie or book.

Annapolis’s legislative cycle runs 90 days, starting in January. The county council sessions are year round. That means her job never ends.

“What I’m going to be doing from January 11, when the [state legislative] session opens, to April 11, is that I will be in Annapolis two to three times a week,” she says. “I will be testifying on our operating budget, on workforce funding and programs. Seeing and being seen is really important, so that CCBC stays in the hearts and minds of legislators.”

Overcoming opposition

But not all college systems have official support. Take, for instance the California Community Colleges, which stood to benefit from a $9 billion general obligation bond on the state’s ballot in November — but which was opposed by the governor.

In California, colleges can float their own bond measures within their counties or jurisdictions, as MiraCosta did. But colleges can also benefit from statewide measures, like November’s Proposition 51, which earmarked $2 billion of $9 billion for community college upgrades. That money would be dispersed then by the state system to colleges according to statewide priorities. In this case, that meant giving precedence to improvements that benefit the environment and safety, including seismic retrofitting and drought mitigation.

But in the case of Prop 51, nothing went as usual, says Rebekah Cearley, a Sacramento lobbyist. Usually, bond measures make it onto the ballot after going through the legislature and the governor.

Read the full article in the current issue of Community College Journal.

About the Author

Heather Boerner
is an education writer based in San Francisco.
The owner of this website has made a commitment to accessibility and inclusion, please report any problems that you encounter using the contact form on this website. This site uses the WP ADA Compliance Check plugin to enhance accessibility.