Mark Simon

Writing a column is a lot like what we would call everyday life. You start out thinking you’re going to do one thing, life intervenes, and you end up doing something else. Today’s column, for example, was going to be a bunch of notes and items delivered in an engaging and fulfilling style. Just like always.

Then some guy named Bill Collins writes a screed for Your Friendly Neighborhood Daily Journal attacking the San Mateo County Community College District. I don’t think it’s my job to stick up for the district, but he certainly seems to think it’s his to tear it down. His op-ed is riddled with factual errors and I can’t help myself.

His criticism is that the college district has used a billion dollars of public money to build lavish campuses that are largely unused, betray the public interest and fail to serve the district’s mission of educating students. He cites, in particular, the Wellness Center — he puts that in quotes to show he doesn’t think it’s a Wellness Center — at College of San Mateo and the one under construction at Cañada College in Redwood City.

We live in a fascinating time of malleable reality. Information is shape-shifted to fit a predetermined opinion. Mr. Collins is entitled to his own opinion, of course, but, as the saying goes, he’s not entitled to his own facts. So, here we go.

His criticism is that the Wellness Center is being run for profit, “even students are charged $75 a month,” and “these facilities are not built for instruction.”

In full disclosure, something I suspect we have not enjoyed from Mr. Collins, I am a happy member of the San Mateo Athletic Club, which is part of the Wellness Center at CSM. I swim with the San Mateo Masters Swim Team (inviting unwelcome images of me in a Speedo), and I can attest that alone is very much a community activity.

Without question, the gym and two pools are heavily used by the community and by students and are serving a critical role in the health of our community. All it takes to know this is to go to the facility any weekday, which, it appears, Mr. Collins opted not to do. But beyond SMAC, the facility is used for instruction. The cosmetology program is plainly very busy, as are the programs teaching students in the fields of wellness and kinesiology.

Even students are charged a monthly fee and registration, he says. That implies we were told that these facilities would be free to students. They are as free as any other part of the college campus — classrooms, labs and so on. Students are charged fees to go to college. I don’t believe this is a groundbreaking piece of information.

Meanwhile, by charging the public, the Athletic Club has become a generator of net revenue used to advance the district’s educational mission.

This is my favorite part. Mr. Collins asserts the campuses are underused. Visit on any weekday and you’ll see they are well populated with students who would not be going to college at all without these community colleges. It is a minority majority district — more than 71% nonwhite, including 22.8% Hispanic, 14.7% Asian, 13.5% multi-race and 9.6% Filipino. Women are 54.9% of the student population, men 45.1%.

When Mr. Collins says they are not true “community” colleges, perhaps he means his community, which appears to be somewhere and someone else. And by the way, Cañada is in Redwood City, not San Carlos, which is where Mr. Collins put it. Skyline College, of which I am a proud alumnus, is San Bruno, in case you need further geographic help.

Anyway, Mr. Collins’ support for his assertion that the campuses are underused appears to be a new feature of our information ecosystem: Drive-by fact-finding. He wrote: “Visit Cañada, CSM or Skyline College some weekend, and typically, you won’t find much going on. Cañada was deserted when I visited — hundreds of millions in facilities, unused.”

Yep. Students don’t take classes on weekends. I went to my local high school last Saturday. The whole place was closed up.

Anyone who truly visited the three campuses two decades ago and visited them now would be astonished at how much they have changed for the better. The colleges have undergone a building boom and now feature modern facilities and teacher housing that is considered a national model.

But given the times in which we live, I guess it should come as no surprise there are those who would tear down what we have spent so much time and treasure to build.

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

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(1) comment

mreiner

The comments of Mr. Simon and Mr. Collins reflect the passion of divergent views evident the evening of October 20 at the SMCCCD Board room. I, for one, appreciate the opposing positions, as open discussion and transparency is one way to achieve truth, albeit a method that can be discordant, though at the heart of a democracy.

Being a relatively new resident in San Mateo county, my knowledge of the history of this issue and the constituents seeking truth is limited, so if I make mistakes in the following narrative, please correct me without ad hominem attacks:

1. There is concern by some members of the community that the District did not engage in full disclosure when presenting the bond issue for Building 1 at Cañada. The language was at best “ambiguous,” and there was no direct mention that a significant percentage of the facility would be for a private-membership health club (not a private gym, as the facility will be wholly owned by the District, with management of the facility outsourced). As newspaper stories reported when SMAC was built at the College of San Mateo, public outcry now appears to replicate that situation. To me, this is not an unreasonable concern for taxpayers who voted for the bond.

2. There is question as to how a project awarded to Blach and ELS Architects, originally designed to cost about $60 million dollars in 2016, has skyrocketed to $120 million. While a trustee noted that rising costs of construction in the Bay Area is responsible, certain watch-dog citizens have been asking for documentation which has not been forthcoming. I have not, to date, reviewed the District’s Measure H bond as approved by voters in November 2014, so perhaps I’ll find answers there.

3. A two-story building has become much larger with a retractable undulating roof to mimic the outline of the mountains; that is, if you stand exactly in one place. This probably cost a pretty penny.

4. Most important, the building is to house the department of Kinesiology, Athletics and Dance (KAD), as the taxpayers approved a bond for educational purposes. However, faculty and staff believe their instructional needs have taken second place to the space for the fee-paying community health club, and that students will suffer. Of course, if voters approved to issue a bond for such purposes, then the people have spoken.

5. Finally, Mr. Simon states, “Anyone who truly visited the three campuses two decades ago and visited them now would be astonished at how much they have changed for the better. The colleges have undergone a building boom and now feature modern facilities and teacher housing that is considered a national model.” While this is true, bigger is not necessarily better (especially with declining enrollment) and prettier buildings doth not an education make. The SMCCCD three-year graduation rate for a two-year associates degree is about 18%, significantly below the national average of 27% at community colleges. As the San Mateo Community College District is among the best resourced in the state, given that property taxes fund the district, it is surprising to some citizens that we can’t do better. I am an educational researcher studying student achievement over the past two decades (I’d be happy to present this data in another venue, if interested). While I can see with my own eyes new, gorgeous buildings, I’d prefer to think we are building students’ minds.

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