OAKHURST – More than twenty years after local activists fought hard to support the passing of legislation that would guarantee the expansion of higher education in Oakhurst, a new struggle for the town’s share of a facilities bond proposed by the State Center Community College District (SCCCD) is now heating up.
At stake is Oakhurst’s piece of a potential $485 million dollar bond which will most likely be placed on the ballot by SCCCD in November 2016. Early budgets show the Oakhurst College Center could receive $25 million to advance its long-held vision of expansion through a plan that was promised long ago. The SCCCD is governed by a seven-member publicly elected board of trustees who represent seven trustee areas, including most of Fresno and Madera counties and portions of Kings and Tulare counties. It remains to be determined how exactly any money would be spent.
“At the last meeting the Board voted unanimously to begin an informational campaign to let the community know about the facility needs,” says the SCCCD’s spokesperson Lucy Ruiz. “We have 9 percent growth last year and are forecasting 6 percent growth this year, and we need additional facilities. We are preparing for the vote in August to approve the $485 million dollar bond.” When placed on the ballot, the bond would be voted on by District residents.
Officials at the Oakhurst Center say organizers are currently assembling a Community Advisory Group to advocate for the school in light of the proposed bond measure.
“The State Center Community College Board of Trustees is expected to vote whether or not to place an SCCCD Facilities Bond Measure on the November ballot,” explains Oakhurst College Center’s Darin Soukup, Ph.D., who took over the position last July. “With that being noted, there is a Community Advisory Group for Madera County with specific members from the Oakhurst community.”
Those members will be in an ad hoc group and will work on local Oakhurst efforts, says Soukup.
“Although it is early, support has been tremendous. Imagine the potential it will provide for mountain residents, from greater access to higher education to creating local jobs, that will benefit the local economy. These are exciting times for all of us.”
The proposal is reportedly set to include construction at the district campuses in Reedley, Clovis and Madera, and possibly constructing a new Oakhurst Center, among other expansions. Currently Oakhurst is listed as in line to receive $25 million to develop the existing campus or build a new one.
Community members say students at the small and tidy Oakhurst Center currently lack amenities within the portables, including something as simple as a place to gather for study, and can be seen sitting outside in cold weather waiting for class to start. The school, however, is considered by many to be a “hidden jewel in our community,” where students of all ages can get a start or continue on their education.
The SCCCD, sometimes referred to as State Center, was formed in 1964 and serves about one million people including 18 unified and high school districts in more than 5,743 square miles of urban and rural territory. The total operating budget for SCCCD in 2014-15 was $190.7 million. Total district enrollment for the fall semester 2014 is noted on the website at over 44,000 students.
In the 1980s, State Center opened a satellite campus of Reedley College at Yosemite High School in Oakhurst, in order to offer students “the opportunity to receive an affordable, quality college education right in their own community.” The Center moved to its present 2.5-acre site at Highway 41 and Road 426 in 1996, housed in six buildings adjacent to the Oakhurst branch of the Madera County Library. The college serves Oakhurst, Mariposa County, Coarsegold, North Fork and the surrounding communities. Students at the Oakhurst Center can earn an Associate Degree and most of the units required to transfer to a four-year college or university. The Oakhurst site currently has an enrollment of over 620 students.
It’s imperative that area residents and all interested parties join forces to ensure that Oakhurst is properly represented in the proposed bond budget, say community members who are aware of the inherent possibilities and benefits to the economic and educational development of the area the bond could bring. Many believe that will happen.
“We do have a prospective group of committee members for Madera County including Oakhurst and surrounding communities,” says Soukup, adding that anyone willing to participate or interested in doing so is welcome to contact him.
Realtor Brad Ditton was vocal earlier this year in his support of the bond and encouraged the community to coalesce around the idea that Oakhurst should have its due. Ditton took issue with statements in a newspaper article published last June by two SCCCD Board Trustees, Miguel Arias and John Leal. The trustees, according to Ditton, denounced the “isolated” Oakhurst campus and suggested that any further expansion of such a campus “should be retired” in favor of a new district campus in Fresno.
“We are now laying the groundwork for acquiring our portion of the funds to construct a new foothill campus in the Oakhurst area,” Ditton stated last summer. “Many local residents believe that Oakhurst needs a new, larger, permanent SCCCD campus in the foothills to keep our students local. Presently, when students leave town they rarely return to pursue their occupation. If we were able to keep kids local our community would prosper. Oakhurst will support a new campus.”
In the SCCCD 2012-2025 District Wide Facilities Master Plan, the overview proposes that Oakhurst receive a new campus building that is a two-story structure on the existing campus location.
Pointing out that the existing Oakhurst college campus is about one twentieth of the size of the Fresno Community College parking lot, Ditton says the District’s plan to construct a permanent building on the existing Oakhurst campus would be “locking the Oakhurst campus into its present location” for decades to come.” Citing a contrast between the reported enrollment declines at Fresno versus enrollment increases in other centers including Oakhurst, Ditton called on the District to follow through with plans to fund a new Oakhurst center, with a campus that is not limited to the existing location.
“Oakhurst area residents have been paying into the District for a long time and the area has ample infrastructure and land available for a new, larger campus on which to construct a decent, permanent campus,” Ditton says. “What we don’t need is to have the bond approved and then Oakhurst to not get a new campus. We should start organizing to support the bond and emphasize that our approval is based on a new local campus as the SCCCD staff proposed.”
He offers Columbia College in Sonora, California, as an example of a permanent campus that would “provide an improved way of life for students and the foothill population in general,” adding that an atmosphere of higher education would be good for the area.
“What we need now is to press for where the campus will be moved to. We do not need to, and should not leave the campus where it is. A new building at that location is a waste of time and money. We deserve better and so do the students and the community,” affirms Ditton, adding that there are several good sites for a new campus, in Oakhurst and outside of town.
“As for plans for moving to a different location, that has yet to be determined,” says Oakhurst College Director Soukup. Whether bond funds are invested in the existing location or a new one, that atmosphere of higher education was precisely the intent of Oakhurst-area community college supporters two decades ago, when they first went to work lobbying to get legislation passed that would ensure the existence, growth and continued expansion of the Oakhurst Center.
SB 1607 passed the State Assembly in August of 1994, and was approved by Governor Pete Wilson in September of that year. It was introduced by Senator Dan McCorquodale and co-authored by Assembly Members Jones and Snyder. Working feverishly behind the scenes at that time was local resident and education activist Priscilla Pike who, among others, was instrumental in forming the Community College Committee, a grass-roots organization credited with spearheading the passage of the bill in the Education Code.
Section 79131 (b) states that the Legislature “intends to provide expanded access to postsecondary educational services to the residents of eastern Madera County and Mariposa County.” Section (c) states that the “unique barriers to adequate postsecondary educational services for the residents of eastern Madera County and Mariposa County necessitate special legislative assistance, due in part to “geographic and transportation isolation that requires a commute of more than one hour to reach the nearest community college or education center,” leaving residents “denied meaningful access to comprehensive educational services.”
The SCCCD was mandated by law at that time to “maintain the level of support from its own funds for educational services” as it was the “intent of the Legislature in establishing the center to expand community college services for the residents” of the Madera and Mariposa foothills area.
SCCCD Trustee for Area 1 Bobby Kahn recommends the long view be considered in the conversation about the future of the Oakhurst Center.
“The District wants to do something to improve the campus,” says Kahn, also the Executive Director of the Madera County Economic Development Commission. “Eastern Madera County deserves it, and I believe it’s prudent to look out twenty or twenty-five years into the future. In order to keep growing in the Oakhurst area, we need to have a bigger site.”
Funding for the proposed SCCCD bond measure will come from taxpayers who will be assessed at the rate of approximately $20 per year on each $100,000 of assessed property value, according to Brad Ditton.
“We must circle the wagons now,” Ditton says. “This is not the time to have poorly attended community meetings that achieve little or no results. This is not the time to sit and watch. We have to act.”
The Board of Trustees of the State Center Community College District traditionally holds its monthly meeting on the first Tuesday of each month beginning at 4:30 p.m. The meetings take place at the State Center Community College District Board Room located at 1525 E. Weldon Avenue in Fresno, California, unless otherwise noted.