A Bond, but Plan Comes Unglued

If you sometimes wonder why those cranky folks who no way, no how, absolutely never under any circumstances, fuhgeddaboutit, even if their lives depended on it -- whew, that's a mouthful -- would ever vote for a bond measure, read on.

I may have an answer.

Our tale is set in the North Orange County Community College District -- another mouthful -- that governs Cypress College and Fullerton College. In March 2002, voters approved Measure X and the sale of $239 million in bonds, most of it for upgrades on the two campuses. Among the projects touted during the campaign, some parents say, were multimillion-dollar improvements to child development centers on the campuses that served preschool children of Fullerton and Cypress students and the communities at large.

We'll never know how many people voted for Measure X because of the centers. We can say that it needed 55% to pass, and it got 57.7%.

And since then? The existing Cypress center closed in 2003. This year, two years after the bond election, significant cutbacks are proposed for the existing Fullerton center. Neither center got Measure X money for anything. Neither project remains on the drawing board.

Some parents smell a rat, believing the centers were feel-good projects to entice voters to vote yes. "The thing that irks me," says James Campbell, whose 3-year-old daughter attends the Fullerton College center, "is that one of the reasons that I and a lot of people I talked to voted for it is that they were going to expand that center. I feel like it's a bait and switch. They got us to vote for it, now they've deleted it. These were major projects; those were their words, not mine."

District Chancellor Jerome Hunter says unforeseen increases in construction costs for other projects meant several items had to be scrapped. He thinks it was implicit in Measure X that the to-do list represented "what we'd like to do and think we can do under current circumstances." He insists there was "no attempt to deceive people."

Campbell, who serves on the parents advisory board at the center and is also a policy advisor for county Supervisor Lou Correa, is skeptical. "From a fiscal conservative point of view, you get people to vote for a bond measure, you put specific projects in the measure, you should do them," he says.

Hunter, who has met with the unhappy parents, says he has told them that other projects got axed too. "At the time the bond measure passed," Hunter says, "the intention of the district was to complete all the projects" on the list.

Campbell concedes construction costs increased. However, he says, if the district was forced to close the Cypress center and is downsizing the Fullerton center, that suggests it didn't have the necessary funds to operate them. So why ask people for money to build new facilities?

Uh, good question.

Diane Montano, the director of the Fullerton center, says 121 children now attend but that staff cutbacks would require reducing the roster by 48. She must tread lightly on a decision not of her making but surmises that the centers "were probably one of the reasons" people voted for Measure X.

A citizens oversight committee didn't decide what to cut but must ensure that district officials conform to the bond measure. Deleting the child center projects is within the district's prerogative, says Darrell Essex, the committee chairman and former longtime city manager of Cypress. The committee didn't weigh in on the various cuts.

Essex, however, rejects the suggestion that the district intentionally misled voters. "From what I've seen so far, it's just tremendous what they've done with the funds." Among the projects that survived were improvements to libraries, classrooms and other buildings.

Still, I'm giving Campbell the final word, because I think his argument is hard to rebut.

"If you're going to use my tax dollars," he says, "you better list projects that you're going to build. It's not a wish list."

Dana Parsons' column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. He can be reached at (714) 966-7821 or at dana.parsons@latimes.com.

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