Bill Collins

Bill Collins

San Mateo’s local community colleges are being converted into elite country clubs by management that’s out of touch with taxpayers who pay $200 million a year to sustain them.

Voters approved a bond to borrow $366 million (that’s about $700 million, including interest) to “upgrade” and “modernize” college facilities. No mention of building Olympic-size swimming pools and gyms, to be run by a private company. These facilities are not built for instruction, but so the district can sell gym memberships. The for-profit company running them conceals the actual charge (no brochures, nor on the website, you have to call a salesperson) but we taxpayers who fund the posh gym are charged $20 per dropin use. Voters approved some $1 billion in bonds for this district in the past 20 years.

Even students are charged $75 a month, plus $75 registration, to use the center. Signs prohibit student/staff parking at the pool. Now the district is building another huge, lavish “Wellness Center” at Canada College in San Carlos (Skyline didn’t get one).

This “bait and switch” with school bonds is hardly unique to the San Mateo County Community College District, but it’s contrary to law. What the bond did fund is the demolishing of architecturally-significant buildings at CSM by the noted architect, John Carl Warnecke. 

That’s not the only area where the district violates state law, which requires community colleges to spend at least half its budget for faculty salaries. In failing that simple standard, the district shows its priorities are not classroom instruction. The district must not only comply with this law, but also report each year to the public on student progress.

The three colleges sit perched on their hills, remote from those who pay the bills, and the district is similarly aloof. The board meetings are not televised, so the administration knows the public isn’t following. When the board created a new committee to vet a new chancellor, only two of the 17 members are from the public while 15 are in the district. So much for public input.

We’re paying the chancellor a golden parachute of some $1.2 million just for leaving, plus benefits. This is the guy who charged a $100 bottle of wine to the taxpayers (So much for the notion that high compensation assures top people). The acting chancellor is paid about half a million dollars a year, about one-third more than neighboring districts’ pay. The district doesn’t post such contracts on its website. 

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. By contrast, De Anza College in Cupertino is a vibrant place, with the public enjoying the tennis courts, taking classes, shopping at the flea market, going to Flint Center events, all in keeping with the spirit of community colleges as community centers. 

SMCCCD is flush with money. Voters have been generous in increasing our property taxes for vague purposes. It has abused that support with deceit and by overcompensating top administrators who have been disrespectful to faculty, classified staff and the public.

The Board of Trustees is now seeking a new chancellor. This is an opportunity to make sure the chancellor takes direction from the elected board, and not the converse. Restore “community” to our community colleges.

Bill Collins worked as the legislative and public affairs coordinator for the State Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and at the Legislature for more than 30 years.

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