Santa Rosa Junior College pushes $410M bond measure

Santa Rosa Junior College has seen a lot of use over the past 96 years, which is why administrators are now asking voters throughout the county to pass a new $410 million bond measure to fix up its well-worn facilities.

The general obligation bond measure, which has yet to be named, will appear on the Nov. 4 ballot following a unanimous vote by the college’s board of trustees on July 22.

“Santa Rosa Junior College is the 10th oldest and 10th largest community college in the state,” said college president Frank Chong.

Chong said the school is more popular than ever, with three-quarters of students who attend college in Sonoma County going to SRJC. And yet, he said, its facilities are old – some well over 50 years old.

In short, he said, “Our buildings are tired, they’re over-utilized, and they’re outdated.”

Hence the new bond measure, which would generate millions to renovate or replace 16 structures on campuses in both Santa Rosa and Petaluma. The latter campus was itself built up using money from the last bond measure – the $251 million Measure A, passed by county voters in 2002.

That funding is nearly used up, Chong said, adding that a small allocation from the state – less than a million dollars a year – is not nearly enough for what’s needed.

Jane Saldaña-Talley, vice president of the Petaluma campus since 2007, said she watched the campus grow and evolve with help from Measure A funds – and sees the need for renovations now.

Although individual projects haven’t been priced out yet, some portion of the new measure’s funds would certainly go to improvements in Petaluma, including a new science wing, she said.

According to data submitted by the college, 6 percent of students enrolled in classes in Petaluma in the fall of last year came from Sonoma or Sonoma Valley communities. About 61 percent came from southern Sonoma County.

“I was very blessed that I came on board when they were in the middle of the construction projects that expanded our campus,” Saldaña-Talley said. But today, she said, some of the campus’ 20-year-old buildings need an upgrade, and its science facilities – for students taking courses in chemistry, physics, biology, physiology and other disciplines – are unable to meet growing demand. Currently, due to limited classroom and lab space, students in the South County region are often forced to drive up to Santa Rosa or to leave the district entirely and take classes in Marin or Napa.

Another local need, she said, is for a “space on the campus where students can gather.”

“The whole idea is creating an engaging environment,” she said. “You don’t want a class-to-car culture.”

Chong concurred, and emphasized that for all of the college, “The main need that we have is in the area of science, technology, engineering and math.”

But even at the most basic level, he said, leaky roofs, poor lighting, poor ventilation and other problems are commonplace, especially at the Santa Rosa campus. Two weeks ago, the electrical system inside the heavily used Emeritus Hall in Santa Rosa blew out, forcing the sudden cancellation of several theater performances.

The problem had yet to be fixed by last week, and Chong joked that people were asking him if he caused the blackout himself to demonstrate the need for bond money.

“I’m not that Machiavellian,” he said. “It was really unfortunate that that happened, but it kind of just underscored the need.”

The November bond measure would require 55 percent approval to pass from voters throughout the district, which includes all of Sonoma County and small slivers of Mendocino and Marin counties.

The measure would cost property owners an estimated $25 per $100,000 of assessed value – so that, for example, the owner of a property assessed at $500,000 would pay an extra $125 per year.

State law prohibits such bond money from going to any use other than infrastructure.

Overall, Chong said, the money is an investment in the region’s future workforce, as SRJC educates its professionals and skilled workers such as mechanics, nurses, chefs and teachers.

“It makes a difference in terms of quality of life, business relocation,” he said, calling the bond an “economic stimulus to the county in terms of jobs.”