When it became clear earlier this year that the Los Angeles Community College District would be seeking a $3.5-billion construction bond — now on the Nov. 8 ballot as Measure CC — our first reaction was: They've got to be kidding.
After all, property owners within the boundaries of the huge district are already paying, on their property tax bills, for bond measures adopted in 2001, 2003 and 2008. And that last one, eight years ago? Much of the money from those bonds was spent on a construction program mired in mismanagement, waste and nepotism. The Times detailed the disastrous ripoff in a six-part series in 2011.
Bond money was spent on a decorative clock tower that was so ineptly built that it took $157,000 to fix. Bond money was spent on a video biography of the man in charge of the construction program. Bond money — $3.4 million of it — was spent renovating a theater that was then slated for demolition because college officials decided they wanted a brand new one instead. Bond money was spent to design a fitness center — and then spent all over again when the college president changed his mind about where on the campus he wanted to put it. Bond money was spent to hire contractors who donated to the campaigns of community college officials.
Money from the two earlier bond measures was not always put to wise use either. Much of it was spent on solar panels and similar projects meant to make the community college district a leader in green energy and environmentally responsible buildings. Nothing wrong with that, except the program didn't do enough of what officials had promised it would: update campuses that were built in the 1960s but not adequately maintained or properly equipped with modern air conditioning and heating, or with doors, ramps and walkways that comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
The district has, understandably, run out of money before completing its building program. Now it's back for more. So we say again: They've got to be kidding.
It is tempting to just say no and let the district deservedly suffer — but what that really means is letting another generation of students undeservedly suffer for the misdeeds of the incompetent top administrators and inattentive college trustees who were responsible for the mess, most of whom have since been replaced. There are still buildings on the district's nine college campuses that need to be refurbished and brought into compliance with seismic and disability access laws. Community colleges are still the gateway for tens of thousands of L.A. students to decent jobs or four-year universities. It's hard to see what would be gained by holding off for another election cycle.
The question, then, is whether the district has sufficiently cleaned up its act to instill confidence in another bond issue. The district's efforts haven't earned an A, but an election is a pass-or-fail proposition, and on balance this one has earned a passing grade. The Times recommends a "yes" vote.
One of the district's biggest changes was to strip away from individual college presidents the power they formerly had over design and construction, and to centralize that authority with the district's administration. That's a good move, and should go a long way toward removing whim and ego from the construction program.
The district has also revamped construction oversight and fund management to something more closely resembling best practices in the industry. State Treasurer John Chiang has direct authority over state bonds but only the power of persuasion over local bonds like this one. He has nevertheless established guidelines, some of which now have the power of law under a bill by Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) that was only recently signed into law.
Like most bond measures, this one has appealing bells and whistles like a "Citizens Oversight Committee," but they provide a far lower level of accountability than they should. The district still has much work to do on transparency and candor — for example, representatives told The Times that the trustees who had approved the last bond measure are all gone, but that's false. Still, the district has come a long way and should be allowed to complete the building and modernizing program it began 15 years ago.