Crumbling classrooms

If voters approve a bond, portable-studded Butte College will get improvements

TEACHING IN TRAILERS? Popular Butte College President Sandra Acebo feels frustrated that students have to learn in run-down portable buildings and hopes a bond will provide for some upgrades.

TEACHING IN TRAILERS? Popular Butte College President Sandra Acebo feels frustrated that students have to learn in run-down portable buildings and hopes a bond will provide for some upgrades.

photo by Tom Angel

Junior tidal wave: According to the Community College League of California, the state’s 108 community colleges host 16 million students now and will enroll 400,000 more by 2010. One-third of UC graduates started at a community college; 60 percent of CSU grads did so.

The Butte College campus is a study in contrasts: While gorgeous vistas spread out behind 928 acres of lush greenery, blue oaks and a wildlife preserve, at its core nearly 30-year-old buildings stand valiantly alongside portable trailers—classrooms with hitches and protruding air-conditioning units decorating their scarred exterior. They look tacky. And when it rains, they drip.

College President Sandra Acebo sees potential in the incomplete picture. “I’m so excited by how beautiful this spot is that I still feel blessed. We just need the buildings to go with it.”

Her sturdy-yet-stylish black pumps clicking on the cement walkways, Acebo peers into windows and cracks open the door of a room she finds empty.

Acebo is proud of her school, but this room isn’t likely to show up in a promotional brochure. The walls are scuffed, the ceiling is drooping, and the floor is splitting. “I went to visit a class in this room, [and] I felt so frustrated and sorry for the students to have to be in this building,” Acebo says.

“These portables are all pretty bad,” she continues, gesturing toward an area the staff affectionately refers to as “the KOA Kampground of Butte College.”

“Forty-five percent of our lecture space is in temporary buildings,” she says. To compound matters, enrollment has gone up 48 percent in the last six years. “We need to take our old facilities and fix them.”

A partial solution, Butte College supporters hope, may come in the form of a proposed bond measure totaling nearly $85 million. Trustees approved the effort Nov. 14, and the measure is slated for the March 5 ballot within district boundaries in Butte and Glenn counties.

If it passes, that money will pay to build and repair classrooms and laboratories; upgrade energy conservation, lighting, electrical, ventilation and plumbing systems; and remodel the library, which is well under the state-authorized square footage. Finally, the money would actually put classrooms on 11 acres the college bought along Whitman Avenue in Chico this year for $2 million, money it had squirreled away for that purpose over the years.

“We have been working on this [bond] for a couple of years,” Acebo says. In designing the school’s Educational Master Plan, a team also identified millions in unmet facilities needs. (That’s not counting things that were in the original master plan but never built, like a pool, an administration building, a planetarium, a science lab and a music building.) At the very least, supporters figure, growing programs need more, and safe, space.

A telephone survey of 500 residents found support for a conservative bond package that would focus on renovations, repairs and upgrades.

Now, Butte College employees must step back, and rather than taxpayers footing the bill for the bond campaign, the cause will be taken up by the Butte College Foundation and a group of volunteers.

As Acebo walks purposefully around the campus, which is set on a gently rising hillside well back from roadways, the dominant noise is at its apex, where work is progressing on the first major state-funded construction since the campus opened in 1974. The Allied Health and Public Service building will be the new home of nursing, law enforcement and other programs. It’s paid for with state funds, a small pot of money at the end of a very long line in which each college takes a spot.

It’s exciting, but it’s about the only thing that’s new around here.

A pair of buses circles a parking lot, a 20-year-old dinosaur belching smoke as its newer counterpart travels by cleanly in comparison.

Acebo also wishes for “a kind of layout of the campus that would be easier for students.” There are 14,700 of them—nearly 10,000 more than when the college opened, with the same number of permanent buildings.

“A college is not a trailer park. It should not look like one,” Acebo says. “My first teaching job was in a prison, and the rooms were nicer than these. If you were all excited about going to college, wouldn’t you be disappointed?”

Acebo pokes her head into the life science stockroom, where a crowded jumble of files, lab equipment and even some PVC pipes and cage wire sit atop bowing shelves. A few white mice and goldfish complete the scene. It’s where all the prep work and cleanup for lab classes are done, but it’s also the storage area for science and agriculture classes, and it’s not nearly big enough.

“Are you slumming?” a passing teacher teases the president, who explains that she is showing visitors examples of overcrowding. “In that case,” the man says, “come to my lecture.”

The next stop is the photo lab, where Acebo introduces her presence by announcing: “We’re just looking at crummy portables.”

Here, there are electrical and plumbing problems. Lab technician Clancy Gehrke illustrates: “When somebody puts their lunch in the microwave in the ceramics office, our color processor goes down.”

Another door opens to a faculty meeting, where Margaret Hughes, chairwoman of the Language Arts Department, shared that she teaches in classrooms “that were on the original campus in Durham” in 1968. It wears on morale.

“The college started out on the short end of the stick,” Acebo explains. Butte was blessed with a beautiful piece of land equidistant from Chico, Paradise and Oroville, but it started with limited funds. When it moved from Durham to its present site 27 years ago, it brought along its collection of portable buildings.

1978’s Proposition 13 further limited funding, and the college also has never had the benefit of a local bond, having failed three times at its onset. Acebo says it’s not just that the state isn’t doing its part; community colleges are always expected to draw much of their support from the surrounding areas.

But the state hasn’t been the greatest champion of community colleges, either. On a per-student basis, community colleges get one-fifth of the money UCs do and one-third that of CSUs. Kindergarten through 12th grades also get more. The state hasn’t lived up to the promised funding levels under Proposition 98 in 10 years, leaving the community colleges out $440 million this year alone.

In a perhaps-surprising show of solidarity for public school officials, community college leaders rallied late last summer when Gov. Gray Davis took back $98 million, money the schools had been counting on for maintenance and instructional supplies. At Butte, that meant $1 million for projects like replacing the library elevator, reroofing, heaters, irrigation and lighting.

“Everyone was so shocked,” Acebo remembered. “It was like a cry rose up across the state and said, ‘You can’t treat us that way. We’ve been underfunded so long. … Then, he decided to balance our budget with maintenance money, and it was the last straw. … We’ve done too well on very little, so when very little shrank, it was time to act.”

Acebo was among those whose long-pent-up frustration led them to travel to Sacramento to appeal to the Senate, ultimately succeeding in winning back about one-third of the money Davis had ordered cut.

Acebo speaks passionately about the virtues of community colleges, and Butte in particular. She came to the school as president and superintendent four years ago from DeAnza Community College.

“I loved the concept of a college for the community. That it’s embedded within the community and it responds to the needs of the particular community and can develop programs of specific benefit to that place, not just transfer students.”

Unlike places such as Los Angeles, where there may be several community colleges in a small area, in Butte and Glenn counties, “We’re it,” Acebo says. Butte College partners with local school districts, Chico State University and the business community to tailor a school to meet area needs. “There’s a kind of pride that comes from being the community college in your area. [It] attracts good people. … We have some of the best faculty in higher education and outstanding programs.”

When she first came to Butte for her interview—to which she was escorted through the kitchen of a trailer to the Board of Trustees’ room—she was struck not by the decaying buildings but rather the natural landscape and relative isolation from the “hurly burly” of the cities. “The physical environment couldn’t be better,” she says. “It’s breathtaking. It’s splendid—a perfect place for a college.

“We have the room to do this. We have the people. We have the place. We just need to improve the facilities.”

Community colleges have long been seen as second-class citizens, and Acebo says, “I think it’s the elitism of the research university that casts a shadow over all of higher education.”

Butte College, she continues, prepares students for careers or higher learning. “We don’t shove people into lecture classes with 400 students.” The teachers “are devoted to teaching and learning as well as their subject matter.”

The task of getting the bond through will be made somewhat easier with the passage of Proposition 39, which lowered the voter approval threshold from two-thirds to 55 percent.

“What’s on the bond are bare-bones things,” Acebo insists—nothing extravagant.

Much of the bond—$31.7 million—would go toward building permanent classrooms to replace portables, including an instructional-arts facility and a student and general services facility. Another $20.7 million would renovate and repair existing structures, including the library, restrooms, laboratories, the student center, roofs, parking lots, floors, bleachers and the bus terminal. The Whitman Avenue Chico center would take $14.3 million. To upgrade the fire- and police-training center, $1.2 million would be spent. The Learning Resource Center Project would get $8.5 million for improved teaching space. Other money would be spent on energy efficiency, wiring upgrades and various health and safety needs.

Until the Chico center is built, classes are being taught at, among other places, the Chico Sports Club and Pleasant Valley High School.

“If we can’t pass a bond, I guess we’ll just have to wait in line," Acebo says. "We would keep patching things up and trying to find nooks and crannies where we could offer our classes." The Chico center, she says, "would be a long way out."