Mark Simon

You will be pleased to know that the pandemic has had no effect on the pace of dysfunction at the San Mateo County Community College District.

The Board of Trustees recently got angry at staff for not coming up with a plan for managing the San Mateo Athletic Center. The fitness facility has been an unparalleled success as a community asset (at a community college, I might add), and as a financial asset to the district, generating $1 million a year in revenue.

Staff’s response was that there has not been clear policy direction from the board, which angered even further some board members, including Trustee John Pimentel. The temptation is to accuse staff of foot-dragging. Kicking staff is a time-honored tradition in Peninsula politics. But going slow seems an appropriate response in this instance.

“I don’t understand why we are still talking about this. I don’t understand why it has been so difficult or unclear. I think it’s very, very simple,” Pimentel said. Well, for openers, there’s the six-page memo from Pimentel forcefully urging yet another approach even as he acknowledged that he might not know what he’s talking about.

Offered up a month ago, when the staff was supposed to be moving ahead with a clear policy direction, Pimentel’s proposal calls for an entirely new management plan that makes the community-funded center free for students and ends all the programs being used by community members.

In addition to being a bad idea and undermining a successful program, it could only have added to the confusion facing district staff, which is trying to bumble its way through a new board that inherited this issue and clearly wishes it had not.

One board member wants the entire facility to be run by district personnel, which will significantly drive up the cost of operating the center. But he proposes no changes to how the facility operates. A couple of others are just impatient that this issue keeps coming up.

Here is a good place for full disclosure: I am a member of the fitness facility. I swim on the masters team at the pool there. I am not a student. This new plan would have a negative effect on me. I think the confusion and misdirection by the staff and the trustees stands out as bad policy regardless of my interests.

Pimentel’s proposal violates one of the most profound unwritten rules for a public entity: Stick with the business you are in. The college district knows how to manage facilities. They don’t know how to run a fitness club.

This is going to be costly and generate less revenue. This assumes a student demand for the facilities that is as yet unproven. This risks alienating a community that has made full use of the facility, and has paid for it twice through bond funds and through dues and fees. This does not bode well for the future of the facility at Cañada, a beautiful new fitness center and pool that has yet to open and appears entangled in this mess.

Meanwhile, Pimentel, a newcomer to the board and perhaps indifferent to collegial niceties, said this whole mess was the fault of the previous board, “which wasn’t paying attention to what the administration was spending its money on.”

That’s a sweeping condemnation of at least two prior board members, the highly diligent Karen Schwarz and the late Tom Mohr, one of the most responsible public officials I have ever known.

All of which hearkens back to a question I have asked before about the issue of governance at Caltrain and seems worth revisiting here: Exactly what is the problem the trustees are trying to solve?

WE’RE NUMBER ONE: I will get into this further in future columns, but the most alarming piece of news I have seen in recent days is that San Mateo County’s median home price is now $2 million. And that the county has the most expensive housing in the Bay Area.

My god, what have we done? Or, more precisely, what have we failed to do?

PUBLIC COMMENT: Having served at a public agency, I understand entirely how public comment can add to the length of a board meeting. At Caltrain, one individual routinely added 20-30 minutes to board meetings, usually with comments that staff was either incompetent or dishonest.

But as councils and boards go back to in-person meetings, they should keep the online ability to attend and comment, and there should be no efforts to limit public participation. You signed up for this. Suck it up.

Or, to quote the legendary newspaperman Dave Burgin, “Here’s the deal: There is no deal.”

Mark Simon is a veteran journalist, whose career included 15 years as an executive at SamTrans and Caltrain. He can be reached at marksimon@smdailyjournal.com.

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(4) comments

Maxine Terner

The new College District Board must be doing something right to get a Simon administration-apologist rant. A few facts: 

1) both athletic clubs were funded by taxpayer bonds that did not identify these projects on the ballot. Bond ballot language was left vague in spite of the District knowing what specific projects were being proposed and what state law required.  Transparency and accountability were not hallmarks of the previous Board.

2) the new athletic facility at Canada College cost over $120M (approximately 1/3 of the last bond issue); it's extravagance should make any taxpayer's blood boil! This facility must be operated to serve the broadest number of county residents, not just dues paying members.

3) "stick with the business you are in" is good advice for the College District - am I wrong in thinking their primary business is to educate students for good paying jobs and to transfer to 4 year colleges in accordance with their mission statement. A membership only health club that primarily serves the wealthiest neighborhoods in the county, yet is taxpayer subsidized by all county residents, does not further this mission. It's good to know that Mr. Simon, as well as the former discredited Chancellor & some former Board trustees, are members of the privately operated club and enjoy the luxurious facilities. 

4) one of the largest programs at the College District is Kinesiology, Athletics and Dance. Almost every local fitness trainer in the area has graduated from this program. Certainly, they have learned how to operate a gym and fitness program that can be available to all County residents, not just those who can pay more.

Wake up San Mateo County residents. While local school districts struggle with low funding, this incredibly well-funded institution has had declining enrollment and increasing faculty costs for over a decade. Trustee Pimentel is correct that the previous board, “wasn’t paying attention to what the administration was spending its money on.” Kudos to the new Board for finally asking the right questions of an administration that for too long had their self-serving actions rubber-stamped. 

John Pimentel

Mark, I am so happy you enjoy using the athletic facilities at the College of San Mateo. In fact, I would like to allow ALL residents of San Mateo County to have the same privilege you enjoy. I’m advocating for two things: (1) primary use of facilities should be “students-first,” meaning academic and job training programs should have primary access to college facilities, and (2) facilities should be open to ALL county residents, including those who enroll in classes to advance their lifelong learning and folks who might visit campus for a day. We should not restrict use only to those able to lock into expensive long-term gym memberships.

I would like all county residents to have ready access our athletic buildings, pools, playing fields, theaters, libraries, and other amenities. These beautiful facilities were constructed with the public’s money and their access should not be restricted to only a privileged few.

I respect your opinion to consider this goal “dysfunctional” as you say. Rather, I hope to open doors to the entire community we serve. Perhaps increased transparency and welcoming the broad access to our facilities, along with other initiatives like improving engagement with our public high schools, offering hybrid on-line and in-person courses, providing high-quality training in conjunction with employers that will improve the job prospects of students seeking to grow their skills, and returning to tuition-free community college will begin to correct declining enrollment trends SMCCCD has suffered over the past decade. John Pimentel

Ray Fowler

Re: the pool and fitness center... the colloquialism "dance with the one who brung ya" may fit. It's a school not a spa. Get to the business of education. I wish the Board would spend less time making secret sweetheart deals to a former chancellor that was fired then rehired in the dead of night. I wish the Board would spend more time addressing declining enrollment but increasing drop out rates.

Eaadams

You asked! "My god, what have we done? Or, more precisely, what have we failed to do?"

What we have done is make an amazing region and state drawing people from all over the world. We have created opportunity and revolutionary companies have grown. We have made people who invested tens of thousands into their homes into multi millionaires (on paper). We have placed the tax burden not on property owners, as in most of the USA, but on those same high income earners, those new arrivals who pay a lot for a home and those who experience capital gains.

What have we failed to do? Our part. Our part to keep up. Our part to house the children who grow up here. Our part to build homes for janitors, for sandwich shop workers, for teachers, for doctors, for engineers. Our part to ensure schools are properly funded. We have failed since the 1980's to build housing on pace with the growth in jobs. Now we must do our part or the careful balance will cause our innovators end entrepreneurs to move to Texas and Florida. Once that ethos leaves we risk a fate of so many industrial areas of the past. IF that happens all our gains will be in peril.

We must plan on success. It is our cultural ethos. It is a regional issue and regionally we are going to, together, succeed and make a better future for all of us.

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