To the sound of cheers and applause, the Foothill-De Anza Community College District's board of trustees approved two tax measures Monday that could alleviate budget woes and provide state-of-the-art facilities to both college campuses -- including the possibility of student and staff housing.
The board voted 5-0 at the Nov. 25 meeting to place a $898 million facilities bond on the March 2020 ballot, the largest school bond in the county's history, along with a $48 parcel tax measure that would generate $5.5 million annually for five years. Though both were approved separately and have different missions, a large group of students and teachers at the meeting said that both were essential at a time when housing affordability threatens the high-quality education provided by Foothill and De Anza colleges.
Generating the most excitement was the possibility that the bond measure could be used for affordable student and staff housing in addition to building and renovating classrooms. An early list of capital projects suggests that up to $200 million could be invested in residential projects, including transitional housing for students and employees who are facing homelessness.
"I really believe that you have the opportunity to do something historic, which is reimagine in the 21st century the role that community college districts can play," said Campbell resident Sergio Lopez.
District staff is expecting to update the district's 2016 facilities master plan next year to refine how to best spend the $898 million in bond funds, but recently injected two new priorities -- housing and carbon emission-cutting projects -- into the existing plan. A 2018 survey that found 19% of students attending Foothill have experience homelessness in the last year.
De Anza student Ashley Aquino said she has been struggling with housing issues and currently lives in a trailer, which is small and difficult to work in, and that she stays on campus to do school work until it closes for the day. She said the bond could resolve those issues, while a parcel tax could bring operational funds to keep education programs alive and pay teachers enough to survive amid the housing crisis.
Another student described how she had moved seven times in two years, had a negative balance in her bank account last spring, and is among the many students who are forced to make do without any help from parents.
"With these resources we can reinvest in our community that we all love, that's so dear to us," she said. "Support the bond and parcel tax to reinvest and provide better resources for our students."
School staff echoed similar struggles. De Anza teacher Daniel Solomon said he and his wife are both teachers in the district and taking on a heavy course load to stay afloat. The district provides the majority of his family's income, and yet they cannot afford to live where they work. He said he's currently living in a renovated barn in unincorporated San Mateo County.
With the planned closure of the Flint Center for the Performing Arts on the De Anza campus on the horizon, student advocacy groups say the large footprint left vacant could be ideal real estate for student and faculty housing. Firm plans have yet to be developed on what to do with the shuttered Flint Center and where to put student and staff housing.
The bond measure, if passed, would cost property owners $16 per $100,000 of assessed value, and would be levied on several cities encompassed by the district's boundaries including Palo Alto, Mountain View, Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Cupertino and parts of Sunnyvale, Santa Clara and San Jose. It would also be the first bond since the passage of Measure C in 2006. A preliminary capital project list shows the district has about a $1.5 billion backlog of facility improvements.
Board member Laura Casas said the bond measure and parcel tax alike would preserve the district's sterling reputation as having some of the best community colleges in the state, recalling how a real estate agent in 2000 described Foothill as "Harvard on the hill." Keeping that reputation means retaining faculty and helping students who are struggling to afford food and access mental health care.
"I want to portray that to voters -- I don't want to lose the Harvard on the hill," she said.
Peter Landsberger said he supported the bond measure but wanted to temper expectations as many speakers focused sharply on student and employee housing. The scope of the bond is much larger than housing, he said, and the public shouldn't get the impression that the district is getting into the housing business at the cost of a top-notch education.
"This is really for the ongoing ability of these institutions to provide high-quality, low-cost, up-to-date education," Landsberger said.
Relieving a tight budget
Despite the booming economy and the district drawing tax revenue from some of the most expensive real estate in the country, Foothill-De Anza has faced deficit spending for years and is currently operating on borrowed time.
Unlike neighboring community college districts, which are fully funded through local tax revenue, Foothill-De Anza is subject to fluctuations in state funding based on enrollment. Several straight years of declining enrollment means that the district faces a growing shortfall in funding that could culminate in layoffs and discontinued programs.
Financial staff at the district told the Voice last year that, due to the unusually high number of students served by the district and the state's funding formula, Foothill-De Anza is receiving an estimated $5,150 per student, compared to $7,500 to $8,500 per student in neighboring districts. Chalking it up to "bizarre circumstances" in the tax system, former board member Bruce Swenson said the district needs the pair of tax measures in order to partially bridge the funding gap.
"We need special help," he said. "We need the bond and we need the parcel tax both for the facilities and the ability to attract quality employees."
The district has been shielded so far from the worst of the budget cuts caused by enrollment declines. The state has granted community college districts a "hold-harmless" provision through the 2020-21 school year that retains funding based on previous enrollment levels, which is set to expire as the state phases in a new funding formula.
For the 2019-20 school year, that provision means the district is hanging onto $16.3 million in annual funding. But that temporary revenue will expire soon, leaving district officials scrambling to create a "new normal" budget with $17.6 million in carefully planned budget reductions.
The budget outlook for the district is so precarious that its largest union, the Faculty Association (FA), has agreed to only temporary pay raises since 2017. The union won a hard-fought 5% temporary salary increase last year -- rising to 6% this year -- which is set to revert back starting in the 2021-22 school year. If it does, full-time instructors will be paid on an old pay scale ranging from $5,706 to $10,594 per month. The vast majority of FA members are paid for 10 months of work.
FA President Tim Shively told board members that few of his colleagues can afford to live close to where they work, and pointed to recent reports showing 51 of the most expensive zip codes are in the Bay Area -- 11 of which are located in Foothill-De Anza's boundaries. He said neither the state nor rapid development in the region have been able to stem a continual decline in school funding, making the parcel tax an important stopgap measure that trustees and community members should support.
Casas said the district doesn't get the benefit of stable funding, and that it feels "schizophrenic" managing a budget that goes up, goes down and gets cut amid policy changes at the state level -- sometimes late into June. Board member Patrick Ahrens made a pitch that the parcel tax funds should prioritize adjunct staff, who aren't paid enough and have to jump between campuses to make ends meet, he said.
"There's so much need everywhere, but in particular my heart -- when I think about the parcel tax -- it's with our adjuncts," he said.
Former California Assemblyman Paul Fong, who served on the Foothill-De Anza board, said the district needs the parcel tax in order to have a semblance of balanced when compared to other community college districts. He pointed out that San Jose-Evergreen and West Valley-Mission community college districts have vast reserves built up because they receive far more funding per student.
"You have to do the parcel tax," he said. "To level the playing field."
The resolution placing the parcel tax on the ballot states the money will be used to attract and retain teachers, maintain educational programs and provide affordable programs for students facing food insecurity and homelessness. It also proposes using the funds to expand mental health services and the number of counselors on staff.
While the bond measure needs 55% of the vote to pass, the parcel tax requires a two-thirds majority in support at the ballot box. Despite the high bar, board member Gilbert Wong said the $48 per parcel tax is a modest amount and sunsets in just five years, making it a reasonable ask.