When there is organized opposition to school construction bond measures, it usually comes from anti-tax people, such as those associated with the Silicon Valley Taxpayers Association.
Measure H on the Nov. 4 ballot would authorize the San Mateo County Community College District to borrow up to $388 million in the bond market to finance new and updated facilities and to buy equipment, such as computers, for its three campuses. The taxpayers association, in its typical plain-spoken manner, opposes Measure H, but this time it has company.
Maxine Terner, a longtime resident of the city of San Mateo and a former member of the city's Planning Commission, leads a campaign she calls "Vote No on Measure H." She has a polished website that lays out arguments in some detail, and provides photographs, renderings and links. It also hits hard.
The district, the website says, is lying about Measure H. "This is not the first time they have done so. It's not what they tell voters they are doing with the bond money it's what they're not telling."
Ms. Terner says she has a master's degree in public administration from Harvard University and has spent her career in the public sector, focusing on land-use issues.
"I have always supported public education, am proud to pay taxes and strongly believe in government accountability," she wrote in an email to the Almanac.
In response to Ms. Terner's complaints, district Chancellor Ron Galatolo said the district neither lies nor misuses public funds and has received commendations from a civil grand jury on its bond-related construction practices and its use of bond funds. As Mr. Galatolo noted, a 2007 grand jury concluded that the district's practices should be models for public education agencies in the county.
Two independent rating services -- Standard & Poor's and Moody's -- recently gave the college district their highest marks, making it easier for the district to refinance bonds at favorable interest rates.
The district includes Canada College in Woodside, the College of San Mateo in San Mateo, and Skyline College in San Bruno.
Three years ago, the district proposed a $564 million bond measure but it failed at the ballot box, missing the necessary 55 percent voter approval by 1.9 percentage points. Measure H also needs a 55 percent majority to pass. The measure would increase annual taxes by an estimated $8.22 per $100,000 of a property's assessed value.
The state constitution requires school districts proposing such measures to provide voters with "a list of the specific school facilities projects to be funded" and to have a citizens committee oversee the spending.
There is a "Bond Projects List" in the bond measure language, which is in county voter information pamphlet given to registered voters, but the language refers to goals -- such as "Prepare students for high-demand 21st century jobs" and "Modernize decades-old aging infrastructure" -- rather than specific buildings and facilities.
Ms. Terner's website looks back at how the district spent $254 million on the campus of the College of San Mateo after voters approved a $468 million bond measure in 2005.
The district spent $57 million, for example, on a health and wellness center that is "primarily a private health club," the website says. The wellness center includes classrooms for nursing, dental assistants and skin-care programs, district records show, but the project list makes no mention of health or wellness.
The No website claims the following list entry is the district's justification: "Reconstruction/renovation of existing facilities for nursing, anatomy and other science laboratories & classrooms."
"So what the voters think they are voting for is essentially meaningless," Ms. Terner says. "This gives the District a blank check."
There are specifics in a post-election 2006 district master plan, prepared by Steinberg Architects of San Jose. The plan describes a "new wellness/workforce/aquatic center" that would include "facilities for a community-oriented Fitness and Wellness Center," with the wellness center to "house work-out space, locker rooms and a lobby, in a model similar to athletic clubs."
"Workforce" in this instance refers to cosmetology, dental assistant and nursing programs, with cosmetology to have "a strong public presence that may facilitate transition to 'spa-like' to attract more clientele."
Responding to Ms. Terner, Mr. Galatolo says the district spent the $57 million on "a state-of-the-art allied health and workforce development complex" for the college's nursing, dental assistants, skin-care specialties and fitness programs. The new pool "supports classroom activities and team sports" as well as masters swimming and youth swim events, he says.
"I find that taxpayers are critical of (facilities) that don't do anything," Mr. Galatolo told the Almanac. The district is being "smart" about building multi-purpose facilities, he said. The wellness center is used by transfer students required to take physical fitness classes, by students seeking certificates in programs like Pilates and yoga instruction, and by the public, with membership fees reinvested in the facilities, he said.
A second San Mateo County civil grand jury report, this one in 2011, took issue with the district's handling of this particular project. "The Board of Trustees, the authors of Measure A, did not include on the ballot its proposed use of bond funds to construct an athletic facility that would be operated as an athletic club as well as a teaching facility.
In looking for the wellness center on the project list, the grand jury came up with a different interpretation: an item calling for a "workforce development center" for biotechnology, international trade development and other economic development programs.
"The project list for Measure A," the grand jury says, "is so broad it permitted generous interpretation in the purpose of the funds. For example, College District officials stated that the bond language 'workforce development center' was the basis for the construction of the wellness/fitness center."
The county's voter information pamphlet does not have specifics on projects that would be funded by this year's Measure H, but members of the district's bond oversight committee did receive specifics, including a description of the function and estimated costs for eight new and nine remodeled buildings, with the remodeling to include seismic retrofits, energy efficiency improvements, and access for the disabled.
How can voters make informed decisions without such details? "I think it really depends on the level of detail it takes to make an informed decision," Mr. Galatolo told the Almanac.
Given the competition for contractors in a vibrant economy, districts need flexibility to re-engineer a project, he said. If you say you're going to build a blue tennis court, you then have to build it, he said. "Whatever you say to the voter, that's what you're saying you need the money for."
Why not give voters brief descriptions with estimated costs like those given to the bond oversight committee, along with a commitment to act in good faith? "Nobody does that," he said.
Ms. Terner cites a college district survey that picks out healthcare, accounting, digital arts, biotechnology and computer information science as the five fastest growing sectors of the regional economy. Why, she asked, is the district planning to spend $100 million on a new creative arts building at Skyline College?
Arts students, many of whom intend to transfer to four-year schools, need a new building, Mr. Galatolo says. The current classrooms are not wired for "21st century teaching and learning," he said. Denying community college students modern facilities is "offensive," he said.
Enrollment is down, Ms. Terner notes, and the district is performing poorly in "completion rates" the rates at which students transfer to four-year colleges or earn associate's degrees or certificates. She claims that fewer than 10 percent of students are reaching those goals.
In a 2013 "fact book," published by the district and meant to assist officials in making decisions, completion rates are low, but above 10 percent. The rates are calculated using standards set by the state.
Completion rates in 2009 were 25 percent statewide compared to 12 percent at Canada College and CSM and 17 percent at Skyline, according to the fact book.
Mr. Galatolo disputes these numbers. The real completion rate is 21 percent at CSM and is about 20 percent for the district, he says. The fact book tracks only students transferring to California public colleges and universities. Local students transferring to private schools, such as Stanford University, Notre Dame de Namur in Belmont, and out of state are not accounted for, he says.
Ms. Terner questions the district's spending money on recruiting international students, given the remedial education needs of about 65 percent of local community college students.
Mr. Galatolo defended the recruiting. International students pay $250 per unit, compared to $46 for domestic students. Three international students in a classroom "pays for that class and then some," he said, adding: "We proudly accept 100 percent of the students who apply to us."
Go to this link to see Maxine Terner's website.