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MiraCosta Community College Asks Voters To Approve $497 Million Bond

When Ryan Baltrane came to MiraCosta Community College two years ago, he had no clear goals.

Aired 8/24/12 on KPBS News.

Mira Costa Community College in coastal north county is asking voters to approve a $497 million bond measure to upgrade and expand classrooms and science labs. Some voters think it’s the wrong time to be asking for higher property taxes, but polls suggest the measure has a good chance of passing.

Mira Costa College student Ryan Beltrane, August 2012
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Above: Mira Costa College student Ryan Beltrane, August 2012

“Honestly, in high school I never really did much,“ he said, “ I never accomplished anything. I came here to MiraCosta College with nothing. Now I have a future, now I have a plan.”

Beltrane is applying to transfer to the University of California next year. He's part of a flood of students trying to get a toe-hold on the ladder to higher education.

He learned early that it was no good waiting till the last minute to apply for courses, because you wouldn't get a seat.

“Enrollment here is really high” he said, “there are a lot of students waiting to get into classes.”

Science classes are some of the most difficult to get into. On the first day of school, the basic chemistry class was full, with students standing at the back of the room, hoping to get a place. It’s a prerequisite for several other popular courses, like nursing.

Students wait at the back of class to see if they can get a place in an oversubscribed chemistry course.
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Above: Students wait at the back of class to see if they can get a place in an oversubscribed chemistry course.

Chemistry Department Chair, Pierre Goueth, said he’s now running three sections of this class, and that still doesn’t meet the demand.

“The first time I came here and started teaching this class,” he said, “we had about 12 students in this class. It wasn’t full six years ago. Now we have 90 students, and we have about 60 more on a wait list.“

A rendering of the new instructional building that will house interdisciplinary classrooms and biological science labs
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Above: A rendering of the new instructional building that will house interdisciplinary classrooms and biological science labs

Overall enrollment at MiraCosta Community College has grown by 20 percent in the last three years to more than 14,000 students.

The college used its reserves to upgrade the library recently, and redo the central plaza. But this year it’s asking voters to approve a $497 million bond measure to pay for upgraded science labs, and new facilities to train students for professions like nursing.

“We haven’t asked our local community for a facilities bond since 1961 when we built the campus,” said Dr. Francisco Rodriguez, President of MiraCosta College. “So it’s been over 50 years. Many of our facilities have lived their useful purpose. Now it’s time to expand and modernize for 21st century jobs.”

Rodriquez said the bond would pay for a new Allied Health building to teach nursing skills, kinesiology and surgical technology. There is a two-year waiting list at MiraCosta for people who want to train as nurses.

About 25 percent of the bond money would be spent on new buildings. But Rodriquez said every building on the college’s three campuses should get upgrades.

MiraCosta College has done polls to see what people think about this bond, and more than 60 percent said they would support it. The measure only needs 55 percent support to pass. But some local taxpayer groups oppose it.

Ed Wagner of the Encinitas Taxpayers Association said the college administration should tighten its belt before coming to residents for more property taxes.

“This is a huge sum of money: $500 million dollars. I think they’re asking for the moon here,” Wagner said, “It started with needing a little bit of money to build some science labs, and once they went ahead with the bond, they figured, well ‘why not ask for the moon, we might as well take all the money we can get.’”

But Jim Austin, MiraCosta’s Vice President for Business, said the college didn’t go for the highest bond it could legally sell.

“We didn’t pull a number out of mid-air and say, ‘Gee, according to the law, here’s how much money we could bond: $25 for every $100,000 value.' We spent two years master planning.“

Austin also said MiraCosta’s bond is not like the school bond that has shocked Poway. Poway’s 40-year, “capital appreciation bonds” will end up costing 10 times the amount of the original bond.

“We don’t have that long delay where we push it off two generations into the future," Austin said, pulling a piece of paper from his pocket and consulting his notes. “Our bond - we’re issuing $497 million - the total repayment we’re estimating to be about $900 million.”

That would be over about 25 years. Austin said that’s like a normal mortgage on a home, not a sub-prime loan. With interest rates and construction costs low, he said, it’s a great time to replace the temporary buildings that date back to the 1960s.

College President Rodriquez said there’s another reason polls show voters are likely to support this measure.

“The money stays local, there’s no opportunity for any money grab for anywhere, and people like local dollars towards local causes.”

“Well that’s true ,” Wagner of the taxpayers group responded. "But we’re a little worried that what they’re doing here is buying themselves a lot of brand new stuff and a lot of equipment and supplies that should be in an operating budget.“

The extra property taxes will cost a homeowner $20 a year for every $100,000 dollars of a home’s value. That means residents in the affluent southern part of the district in Carmel Valley and Del Mar will pay more than residents in the north in Oceanside and Camp Pendleton.

A growing number of the students - more than 12 percent - are returning veterans from Camp Pendleton, and expanding the now crowded Veterans' Center on campus is part of the plan.

The line outside the financial aid center is long: Almost two thirds of the students here apply for federal financial aid.

Standing outside the aid office, student Ryan Beltrane said asking for the extra property taxes to pay off the bond is investing in the future of the community.

“Why else would anybody pay taxes - but to help out the community?" he said. “This college is not only helping out the community, but it’s helping me realize my dreams. And just as easily, it can help anybody else in this community figure out their dreams and give them the tools to succeed.”

College officials estimate Beltrane has saved an estimated $35,000 dollars by beginning his higher education at MiraCosta rather than applying straight to a University of California campus. With college fees edging ever higher, they see the pressure on community colleges to grow will only increase.

MiraCosta College's bond is not the only eduction bond on the ballot this fall in San Diego's coastal North County.

The San Dieguito and Del Mar school districts are both asking voters for bonds that would add to their property taxes. The districts all say that as state money dries up, they have to turn to local voters.

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