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Community Colleges Weigh $1-Billion Bond to Modernize Facilities

District lacks money for a ballot campaign and fears that L.A. Unified's failed Belmont project would prejudice voters. But officials say growing needs demand action.

March 29, 2000|JILL LEOVY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Leaders of the Los Angeles Community College District are considering asking voters to approve an ambitious bond measure of up to a billion dollars to renovate community college buildings and purchase equipment.

The sheer size of the proposal is a measure of leaders' frustration with a growing backlog of building projects and equipment purchases. Officials put a price tag of about $1.4 billion on the backlog.

Passing a large bond measure may seem a longshot after public controversies over school construction funds--particularly one involving the Los Angeles Unified School District's troubled Belmont Learning Complex. But college trustees say it is the only answer to leaky roofs, outdated laboratories and grimy classrooms.

"You know, we are not making this up," said district Trustee Sylvia Scott-Hayes. "Students in urban community colleges have really been abandoned. The facilities are falling apart."

The sparseness, ugliness and disrepair of district facilities make for a common complaint among the district's faculty and 100,000 students.

Take a typical example: Gladys Smith, head of the nursing program at Trade-Technical College, said that not only does her program lack up-to-date equipment to train nurses, it also is short of such basic devices as VCRs.

The nursing program's second-story classrooms could use air-conditioning, she said. "In summer it's like 103 up here," she said. "The students sweat. They fall asleep. It's just a mess."

Critical Gateway

The complaints show how far the nine-college district has fallen since its glory days, when it was considered a pioneer in higher education. Thirty years ago, when the Los Angeles colleges were much newer, they provided the nation with a model for how to bring higher education to the masses.

Today, they remain a critical gateway: Eighty percent of the district's students are minorities and 40% are from families living below the poverty line. But facilities are in decline, and the district has fallen behind others in providing modern equipment such as computers.

If the trustees agree to put a bond on the ballot, they will have to contend with voters' skeptical mood, analysts say.

Voters are "leery and suspicious of how bond money is spent," said Rick Taylor, a West Los Angeles political consultant. One reason is the Belmont Learning Complex, Los Angeles Unified's high school project on a former oil field, which was halted in mid-construction because of environmental hazards.

The project appears destined to waste millions of dollars in borrowed funds, and has intensified debate about oversight of school construction projects. Some analysts believe that Belmont was a factor in the recent defeat of Proposition 26, which would have allowed local school bonds to pass with just 50% of the vote.

However, working in the district's favor is a high level of regard for the colleges among Los Angeles residents, according to a poll commissioned by the district late last year.

In the poll, 70% of respondents said they would either vote yes or probably vote yes on a Los Angeles college bond measure--more than the two-thirds needed to pass the bond.

Respondents generally agreed that community college facilities need repair. They understand that the colleges and the public schools are separate institutions.

They were especially likely to support basic safety and upkeep measures. And contrary to some college leaders' fears that the campuses have little public visibility, the poll found that far more Los Angeles residents have had some direct contact with a community college than with other public schools.

"If you have a high level of involvement, if the community, teachers and students come together, and if residents and businesses rally . . . they will pass this," said John Fairbank, whose firm, Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin & Associates, conducted the poll.

Campaign Funds Uncertain

These are big ifs. Officials estimate that a least $1 million would have to be raised to launch a viable campaign, and no one knows where the money would come from.

Though businesses depend on the colleges for trained employees, the district doesn't have a good record of building ties with industry.

Community colleges have had a hard time passing bonds--with or without Belmont. The Los Angeles district proposed a $200-million bond in 1991, but it fell about 4% short of the votes needed to pass.

A more recent example was a Mount San Antonio college district proposal this month for a $98-million bond for seismic safety and lab upgrades. Polls showed that the measure would win, and there was virtually no organized opposition, said Patricia Rasmussen, a college vice president. The measure failed by a few percentage points anyway.

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