Sensing a potential political battle brewing, Foothill-De Anza Community College District board members agreed this week to postpone plans to put a $898 million bond measure before voters this November.
The unanimous decision by board members at the July 9 meeting aligns with the request of district officials, who urged trustees to wait for another election -- likely in 2020 -- in order to work through issues including staffing cuts, budget uncertainty and enrollment numbers that have tumbled in recent years. All of these factors could feed into a powerful opposition campaign and strain the likelihood of a successful bond measure.
In an announcement via email Tuesday, Foothill-De Anza Chancellor Judy Miner wrote that a confluence of unstable enrollment and an "unprecedented" number of staffing eliminations on the horizon -- along with strained labor negotiations -- has created a rare but volatile environment ripe for a strong opposition campaign, throwing into jeopardy whether the measure would meet the 55 percent majority of district voters required to pass it.
"The convergence of these unfortunate circumstances is unusual in our history and I do not expect it to remain this way indefinitely," Miner said. "We will continue to assess the situation and look for a more opportune time to engage with district voters, which could be as early as 2020."
The decision comes despite polling data earlier this year that found strong support for a bond measure, with about 75 percent of respondents at least leaning toward voting in favor of a hypothetical $898 million measure. The language of the proposed measure was pretty vague, asking voters whether they would support a bond that would pay for new and improved facilities aimed at "preparing students for four-year university transfer and careers such as healthcare, nursing, paramedics, technology, engineering and sciences."
At the time, staff concluded that a ballot measure is "viable and receives widespread support from the district's voters," with a particular interest among the 800 respondents in building better facilities suited for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
But Miner cautioned board members that good polling numbers are no slam dunk, particularly in an uncertain political environment. She noted that Foothill-De Anza's Measure E parcel tax in 2010 had solid polling numbers but ended up falling significantly short of the two-thirds majority required to pass. The six-year, $69 parcel tax measure faced opposition from the Silicon Valley Taxpayer's Association and the local chapter of the California School Employees Association, both accusing the district of overpaying some of its employees in the face of budget woes.
The worry is that something similar could happen again this year. District officials are heavily focused on bringing down annual expenditures to reduce chronic deficit spending, which will likely result in staffing cuts -- something that Miner said could lead to an "opposition campaign based on misinformation."
At the same time, uncertainty in state funding strained negotiations with the district's largest union, the Faculty Association, during the spring, leading to a "work to contract" protest lasting one month. The district has since brokered an agreement with the association for a one-time pay increase of 5 percent over two years, with no permanent increases to the salary schedule.
Despite Miner's concerns that the standoff caused "tensions" that could hurt the bond's chances, Faculty Association president Tim Shively told board members at the July 9 meeting that the union would be supportive of the district's bond regardless of whether it goes to the ballot box this November or in 2020.
While polling showed widespread support for a facilities bond that supports STEM programs and classes that put students in a strong position to enter the workforce or transfer to four-year universities, some board members urged the district to look at options for teacher housing. Board member Laura Casas said the district is going to need to find ways to attract new staff to replace retiring faculty, and housing could be a direct way to appeal to teachers in the high-cost region.
Board members agreed to explore faculty housing options, looking to the example set by the San Mateo County Community College District, which owns and operates a total of 104 housing units on two of its campuses.
Foothill-De Anza is still wrapping up projects funded by the $490 million Measure C bond, which district voters passed in 2006.