"Newsmaker of the Week" is presented by the SCV Press Club and Time Warner Cable, and hosted by Signal Senior Editor Leon Worden. The program premieres every Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, repeating Sundays at 8:30 a.m.
This week's newsmaker is Dianne Van Hook, superintendent of the Santa Clarita Community College District and president of College of the Canyons.
Questions are paraphrased and answers may be abbreviated for length.
Signal: Come Nov. 7, you'll be asking the voters for $160 million. Do the voters have $160 million among them?
Van Hook: I certainly do hope that they do. I think that they do. The cost to the average homeowner is $9.73 per $100,000 of assessed valuation not market value which for the average homeowner for Santa Clarita is just a little under $30 a year. So I certainly do hope they have that.
Signal: We're talking about Measure M, a construction bond. What will you construct with the bond money?
Van Hook: Measure M will fund a variety of projects on our campus and at the Canyon Country center on the east side of our valley.
The state of California changed the rules in 2002 for construction funding for community colleges. In order to leverage and be able to get money from the state, you need to have money to put up, to contribute to the total number of points for a project.
We are anticipating that Measure M will fund the expansion of our library at College of the Canyons, our main facility, and will more than double the size of our library. But instead of a traditional library, we will add the technology that is so much needed today in a learning center: Lots of computer labs, some that will likely be open 24 hours-a-day access by the public, as well as tutorial support for all kinds of traditional and vocational, technical disciplines.
We will also expand our media arts building, which opened in 1997. The disciplines have outgrown it. Our radio-television-film production program, our animation program, digital media art, as well as photography and a number of the majors that emerge to support our local business industry clusters in Santa Clarita have outgrown their space many times over. So that building will expand.
We plan to build a student services (administration) building; we are currently occupying the same amount of space we occupied in 1991, and since that time, our student population has increased by over 200 percent, and so has our staff, so it's a little cozy in there.
We will also complete our energy-efficient central plant on our main campus, and we should be able to build three buildings at our Canyon Country site, three of the six major buildings.
Signal: What's taking so long to open the Canyon Country campus?
Van Hook: Whenever the state approves a facility, you're looking at a minimum of a year and a half to get anything up and running and that's just if you're doing construction straight out of the chute, with preapproved plans.
In this case ... we had to go through six (approval) processes over a period of 12 months at the state level, in the end of December 2004, and then we set about acquiring all the properties and getting the EIR completed, which was done in late November 2005. Then we set about developing the actual site.
We are planning to open the Canyon Country campus at the end of the spring semester which is about eight months from now have it open for the summer. Our challenge right now is to be able to acquire enough facilities there so that when we open the doors and we know that we will have 3,000 people there the day we open the doors that we're ready for the students.
Signal: Wasn't the idea that you would hurry up and grade it and open with some temporary buildings and worry about building it out later?
Van Hook: We are still talking about opening it with modulars. The first permanent building in Canyon Country will be funded in 2008 with an 18-month construction schedule, and we anticipate getting an additional building funded within the next 12 months, and then an additional one within the next 12 months so there's a many-phase process.
The interesting thing about it is, the state won't agree to give you any permanent money for buildings or match your local money until you have (enough full-time students) on a campus, or approximately a 2,500- to 3,000-student head count. It's a very detailed process that we have to go through.
Signal: Five years ago, in November 2001, the voters passed Measure C, which provided the college district with $82 million. Wasn't enough to last more than five years? Why are you coming back for more money now?
Van Hook: I think if we had been building at the same rate of progress that many of the community college districts build at, that we wouldn't have spent all of that money yet. Nor would we have been able to leverage it to get almost $60 million more from state sources, state construction funds.
But College of the Canyons had a very detailed educational facility master plan in place when we went to the voters in 2001. We knew exactly the buildings that we would need to complete our main campus and also to move forward and start planning for Canyon Country. We had some of the working drawings in place, and then when it came about for the state to determine there was money and that we were eligible for money in a particular category of funding, we were ready to jump in there and compete for that money.
Had we had not such a good educational facility master plan, I think we would still be spending that money. It would be costing us a lot more to build some of the projects that are under construction right now, if we hadn't yet bid them, if we were going out to bid next year or the year after. I think that we have been able to turn that money into a lot of other money. We have been able to leverage local money to get state money.
When we went to the voters in 2001, we listed a very long list of projects that could be funded by that bond money because we never know what the state is going to fund. There is a very complicated process where they look at what your actual head count is, what your assignable square footage is, and then they split it into six different categories. Some of the projects fit into one category, another one may fit into another, and how much money that is available in one category has to do with how many other colleges are going after money in that category, and how great is your space need over somebody else. So we put together a list of projects that could be funded, and then we were able to jump in and get as much money as we possibly could.
When we went to the voters in 2001, we did not go for the maximum tax rate that was allowable at the time, and as a matter of fact, with (Measure M's) tax rate of $9.73 per $100,000 (of assessed valuation), we are still under $25 per $100,000. With both of them (Measures C and M) combined.
Signal: Will you becoming back to the voters for even more money five years from now?
Van Hook: I can't tell you that. I really don't know if and when we will be coming back to the voters. What I can tell you is that we will be able to complete all of our projects at the campus on Valencia completely build out that campus and acquire three of the six buildings that we need at Canyon Country.
The state won't fund additional facility money unless the students are there. Just as College of the Canyons has taken 37 years to build itself out and accommodate all of the people who were coming, I would expect that the full buildout at the Canyon Country site at 10,000 full-time-equivalent students will occur over a longer period of time.
Signal: If this is all related to growth, why aren't the new-home developers paying to add space for the students they're bringing here?
Van Hook: That's a great question. When I first came to this valley in 1988, even though community colleges by law are not eligible for any developer fees or any subsidization by developers, I tried that anyway. I made my case. I presented what I thought was a very reasonable and sound case
Signal: To whom?
Van Hook: To different developers. But at that time, of course, and still today, they have no obligation to do that. That's why I think the state level has deemed that it's important for the state to provide funding for community colleges and facilities in a different proportion.
It used to be, community colleges would only get a third of any state money that's available. The rules now are, we get 50 percent of any money that's available. So I think that their adjustment to the proportion of how they dole out state resources has to do with where the students are going and what the student population is in the community colleges versus CSU and UC.
Signal: So if you're able to raise $160 million through this bond measure, you will get another $80 million from the state?
Van Hook: (Yes.) You get $80 million in the first seven years alone.
Signal: What is the life of the bond?
Van Hook: The life of the bond is 30 years.
Signal: Where can you read the language of the measure?
Van Hook: It's available on the Web site (citizens4m.com).
Signal: You said with Measure C, you itemized exactly what the money would be spent on. What about this time around?
Van Hook: We didn't itemize exactly what the money was going to be spent for. We itemized what the money could be spent for. The same thing is true.
Signal: Is there a list of projects people can see?
Van Hook: Yes, absolutely, a very detailed list of projects.
Signal: What kind of oversight is included in this bond measure? Will there be an oversight committee?
Van Hook: Yes, there will be. Just as there was a Citizens Oversight Committee established for Measure C, there will be a separate citizens oversight committee established for Measure M. That's the law.
The purpose of the committee is twofold: one, to make sure the moneys are only spent on those things that were listed in the bond language on the ballot ... and two, to make sure that the moneys are spent efficiently and effectively and accounted for exactly.
Signal: How will the oversight committee members be selected? And beyond making sure the money is spent on listed projects, will they be asked to analyze costs and investments and basically look over the shoulder of the finance director?
Van Hook: All of our money that comes from the bonds is deposited in the L.A. County Office of Education, in the L.A. County coffers, so there is not individual investing done on those bonds. We can go through the county for refunding on bonds, which we did on Measure C; we refunded some of the bonds and generated an additional $3 million.
We deposit in L.A. County because that's where we get the best interest rate. We actually generated about $5 million in interest on the different issuances of the bond, so we came out about $8 million ahead just because we went through that vehicle and had sound investing.
One of the roles of the oversight committee is to secure the services of an auditor, who (would be) very explicit about auditing not only the financial records but also, it's called a performance audit, to make sure the funds were spent appropriately and accordingly.
At College of the Canyons, with our Measure C committee, we actually (audited) 100 percent of the transactions for the first two years, and then we went to 65 percent. Normally, in a large audit, you would randomly sample maybe 10 to 15 percent; we did not choose to recommend that to the committee, and the committee went with a much fuller audit.
So if you're talking about, is the role of the committee to get involved in the bidding process, or oversight of the bidding process? No, that's not their role. We have scads of rules we have to follow when it comes to bidding, and we have to follow them to a T, according to the Title 5 regulations that exist for community colleges. There are only certain occasions in which you can reject bids; there are only certain occasions in which you can re-bid, and we have to follow those rules.
One of the things that I will say about our construction management process is that we actually hire a construction management firm to oversee and help us with all of the individual bids. For example, we don't hire ABC Co. and give the entire construction contract to ABC Co.; instead, we separate out the bid packages. In our current science laboratory project, I believe we have 46 different bid packages.
The great thing about that is that you get to manage the cost on each bid package. That resulted in well over half of those bid packages being awarded to local contractors, so we're able to keep the business local. If we were instead to have bid the project as a whole, more than likely most of that business would not have stayed in Santa Clarita Valley.
Signal: Signal readers know about the $42 million construction cost overruns in the Hart district. How much is that on people's minds? Are you worried voters will be spooked when they're asked to approve another construction bond?
Van Hook: I would hope the voters would go to our college Web site and look under the Measure C page and look at all the minutes of the meetings that have been held and all the performance audits, and read for themselves that we have done, I believe, an excellent job in taking $82 million and turning it into close to $160 million.
As I said, every entity chooses how to manage their constructing, and we choose to manage it one bid package at a time. That enables us to have a little bit closer handle on costs, and also to reject individual bid packages if they're coming in too high.
There are some situations, I think, where we're all facing the rising cost of steel and concrete, due to factors that we can't control, but there are many things you can control. We do "value engineering" on all of our projects. In some cases, if we are doing two construction projects at a time and we have two bids for, say, steel, and we combine those two bids, we can get an economy of scale and we can get the cost down.
I think we've done an excellent job of it, and I think any member of the oversight committee would be pleased to talk with anyone who has any questions as would any member of our staff and the board members.
Signal: Do you bring every one of those individual bids and contracts to the board of trustees?
Van Hook: Every single one. Every single bid. And we bring not only every single bid package to the board; we also bring the results of every bid package. So we bring not only you, if you were the successful bidder; we bring every company that bid, and what their bid amount was.
Signal: Will any of the Measure M money go toward the University Center?
Van Hook: There will be some Measure M money going to infrastructure for the University Center, but we were very pleased to be able to bring together $14 million in local resources to contribute to the cost of the University Center. The state of California is due to give us $21 million to complete that amount.
That will provide for a 110,000-square-foot University Center that will house the Academy of the Canyons in a permanent site on our campus, as well as our high-tech business incubator project, some of our business training initiatives, and perhaps a virtual simulation center. The University Center wing will house our 70 degree programs.
So while that is listed as an allowable expenditure under Measure M, the actual amount that will be expended will be very small, because we were able to bring those resources together in another way.
Signal: What is the primary focus of COC these days? Is it serving the two-year student? Is it doing vocational programming? Is it the University Center? If you were to say what College of the Canyons' purpose is, what would it be?
Van Hook: Meeting the community's needs for education and training, whatever those are. Every community college has a different function in that regard.
If a community college lives in a community where there is very little industry, very little manufacturing, very little aerospace, very little health care training, there isn't a major hospital, no radio-television-film production, animation, multimedia, then obviously they are not going to provide that. That would not be a good fit with the community.
College of the Canyons has the highest transfer rate of any community college (among) Los Angeles County's 21 community colleges. So we take that as a very serious responsibility. We also take our responsibility very seriously to respond to the businesses needs for whatever that emerging training is.
Right now in this state, there is a large emphasis on vocational technical preparation. That probably has to do with the fact that of the 60,000 jobs that are projected to be available in Los Angeles County between now and the year 2012 that require a college education, all but 6,000 of them will require a college education that's attainable at a community college in a technical prep field, whether it's nursing, whether it's medical lab specialists which we are working on to develop a program; there's only one in the state and it's in Salinas and yet the demand for professionals in that area is triple for nursing. And we all know what that is in nursing. That's our responsibility.
We're fortunate here at College of the Canyons because of the community we live in, because it's a growing community, because there is a lot of business movement into our community, to have the support of businesses to collaborate with us. We can't do it alone. Businesses have to be willing to step up to the plate with space as the Alfred Mann companies have done with our clean room, or Henry Mayo has done with the clinical education center, or Aerospace Dynamics has done with the manufacturing education center. They have to be willing to step up with the equipment and supportive equipment as recently the Auto Dealers Association stepped up with a $100,000 commitment to help us fund the equipment to start an auto program. We were able to get $350,000 from the state because it was a true partnership. That's our job, that's what our role is: to meet the community's needs for education.
Signal: Is COC filling this vocational training void because the high schools aren't doing it? Are they are too focused on test scores these days?
Van Hook: I don't know why and what the high schools are doing. I think we are working with the high schools. Well, I'm not I'm there, so I only know what I am doing. It's my job to know what I am doing. And I do know that.
I think that some of the training and preparation for college-level, advanced vocational training happens at the high school, but some of it doesn't. Some of it is directly tied into a college-level curriculum, so it's a partnership. The best of all worlds is where you have a partnership between the high school and the college so that the students are getting what they need in high school and are ready to enter at a higher level of capability at the college, and that means they can get through faster; they can get those well-paying jobs and they can support our community.
Signal: You've reported that thousands of students applied to COC and didn't get in.
Van Hook: That's right.
Signal: Why didn't they get in?
Van Hook: No space.
Signal: Why is the growth that extreme? Is it that the high schools aren't providing and education that can get a kid into a four-year university, more are coming to the community college?
Van Hook: I am glad you asked that question, because I have a real personal and emotional bias toward community colleges. Today, College of the Canyons enjoys the participation of over 60 percent of the local Hart (high school district) graduates when they leave high school. That is a huge change from just eight short years ago when 20, 25, 26 percent of the local Hart (district) students were coming directly to College of the Canyons. In those days, it was 20 to 26 percent choosing us, 30 to 40 percent going to four-year colleges, and the other 35 percent not going anywhere. Now we have over 60 percent coming to College of the Canyons, about 20 percent going directly to four-year colleges, and 20 percent not going directly into a educational situation.
Signal: Why are fewer going directly into four-year colleges?
Van Hook: Because it's so expensive. It's very expensive, going to a four-year college, even if you just look at the fees alone, forget room and board. Community colleges cost $600 to be a full-time student on an annual basis. At a CSU, it costs $2,520 to be enrolled in the same 30 units on an annual basis, and in a UC it costs $6,522 to be enrolled in the same units.
College of the Canyons has excellent transfer agreements with four-year colleges so that when our students complete 60 transferable units, (they) can transfer in many cases with junior status in their majors (into) the four-year colleges. The money that they save while staying home and going to college in the local community for those first two years helps not only pay for the second two years, but it (also) helps pay for graduate school. And today, graduate school for many professions is a necessity.
Signal: What is your fallback is you don't get the $160 million from the voters?
Van Hook: Well, we have some options. We can wait in line for the state to fully fund our projects, although that means
Signal: You mean when hell freezes over?
Van Hook: Well, it's pretty close. It's going to be a long time, because that's not their preference right now. They want you to step up with local funding, as well.
We can take out certificates of participation to be able to get the money that we need to match in small increments, to get state dollars; but unfortunately, certificates of participation are paid back annually over time through the local operating budget and it's the local operating budget that funds the additional sections of classes and the teachers for those classes.
We already have increased our online offerings. Students can earn an AA degree online at College of the Canyons, completely online in a transfer studies major. So online education is always a option, although it won't work in many majors. So we will continue to be aggressive in attempting to get the money that we need to be able to serve this community.
We have gone from serving 4,000 students to serving 19,000 students in 18 years; from an annual operating budget of $8.5 million to $162 million. So we are very aggressive and very diligent in our efforts to bring money to this community so our students can go to college here locally, high quality, and move on with their educational goals.
Signal: You need a 55-percent vote. What do your polls show?
Van Hook: The polls? Gosh, it's been a while since I have looked at that. But the polls show, depending on how much money we went for, that it was between 66 and 70 percent who would support our bond measure, depending on what level we went out for.
Signal: And at the $160 million level?
Van Hook: That's right.
Signal: OK, if somebody looks at his ballot and sees this $160 million bond measure, why would he vote yes?
Van Hook: I think for the cost of the average property taxes to a homeowner in the valley, that $30 on an annual basis to enable more of their students and workers and children to be able to go to College of the Canyons locally is one heck of a bargain.
In January, enrollment fees will drop from $26 to $20 a unit on an annual basis; that's a $90 savings on a semester basis, so with a course of 30 units, that's $180 dollars a year. Thirty dollars a year to trade for that is, I think, quite a bargain.
See this interview in its entirety today at 8:30 a.m., and watch for another "Newsmaker of the Week" on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m. on SCVTV Channel 20, available to Time Warner Cable subscribers throughout the Santa Clarita Valley.