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[whitespace] Victor Monia
Photograph by David Heller

Wrong Side of the Track: Saratoga resident Victor Monia is leading a group that hopes to block plans to improve the athletic field at West Valley College.

Field of Screams

Will NIMBY politics in one of the valley's wealthiest enclaves derail a badly needed school bond?

By Jeff Kearns

THIRTY-FIVE years ago, when the newborn West Valley Junior College District asked the city of Saratoga for permission to build a campus in the midst of a suburban rectangle of wide streets and large homes, city officials were happy to oblige. Before approving the resolution on Jan. 9, 1967, they tacked on a few extra conditions for things like parking, building design and landscaping--standard procedure. And then there was Condition 7, which mandated that "the campus shall not include an outdoor sports stadium designed for large-scale public attendance at intercollegiate games or events."

Fast-forward three and a half decades. The West Valley-Mission Community College District, as it's now known, has grown to include Mission College in Santa Clara and serves 26,000 students. The buildings and grounds begin to show their age. Hard times hit the economy, at the national, state and local level. And with enrollment on the rise, the district finds itself with a $1.6 million budget shortfall.

District officials hatch a rescue plan called Measure E, a $268,653,300 school bond. If it passes, property owners in Campbell, Los Gatos, Monte Sereno, Santa Clara, Saratoga, Sunnyvale and west San Jose will pay $14 per $100,000 of assessed value of their homes.

"The buildings at West Valley are old and run down, and the Mission campus has never been fully built out. Some of the programs there continue to operate in portable buildings," Vice Chancellor Steve Kinsella argues.

Enter the naysayers. A small group of residents, mostly neighbors who live near West Valley, fly into action. But while their campaign is directed at sinking the bond, their motivation seems to have little to do with funding issues. The No on E crowd makes the most noise about how much the bond will cost while doing its best to portray the district as greedy and mismanaged. To make their point, opponents take a minor accounting error and an embezzlement incident at a nonprofit agency that's unaffiliated with the district--both of which happened several years ago--and use them to assert that the district can't be trusted.

The underlying issue, however, is what the anti-bonders call The Stadium.

It's not really a stadium in the conventional sense of the word. One of the 40 provisions of the bond is to use a small portion of the money to "renovate, modernize, complete and equip athletic facilities at West Valley College." The proposal would add bleachers (which the school has never had), a press box, bathrooms, lights, a scoreboard and a PA system. It would cost between $1 million and $5 million.

District Chancellor Linda Salter insists the field would be used only for small-scale student athletic events and commencement ceremonies. And right now, Salter says, the field is totally inadequate. "It's a bowl that's been carved out so people who come to watch games have to sit on folding chairs at the top because there's no seating."

Salter, meanwhile, announced Wednesday that she would retire at the end of the school year, citing personal reasons.

Ties That Bond

Measure E comes during a busy year for school bonds. West Valley-Mission is one of 14 community college bonds (totaling $2.58 billion) that will go to California voters in March. Districts are taking advantage of the new rules of Proposition 39 (approved by voters in 2000), which require only a 55 percent vote to pass a school bond instead of the two-thirds vote formerly required by Proposition 13.

Community college districts also took a hit when Gov. Gray Davis axed $98 million for the state's 108 community colleges from the state budget last August, leaving West Valley-Mission $1.6 million short for equipment and maintenance. The governor has proposed restoring that funding, but other cuts loom.

"It's definitely a time of fiscal uncertainty for community colleges," says Scott Lay, budget director for the Community College League of California. "The boom times have ended."

Tough times or not, Measure E opponents say the district shouldn't get the money. West Valley Homeowners Association president Victor Monia, an ex-West Valley-Mission trustee who also served one term on the Saratoga City Council, is leading the charge against the bond. Monia is a longtime crusader against the district's plan to improve the athletic field.

"We're not anti-education or anti-school; this is just the wrong way to fund these things," Monia says, asserting that the true cost over the life of the bond is estimated at $715 million. "We're basically going to be paying $2 in interest for every $1 we get from the bond measure."

Jim Roth, an exec at Salomon Smith Barney, the firm underwriting the bond, says the interest rates (which have not yet been finalized) are no different from any other municipal bond. In fact, he adds, the time is right: "Interest rates are at historic lows, and this is one of the best times to be borrowing."

Monia has other beefs, too: The funds won't go toward improving the quality of instruction, how the money will be spent hasn't been described in detail, and the district staff tried to sneak the bond on the ballot by putting it before the board at a nonregular meeting.

District Chancellor Salter responds that bond money can only go to capital improvements, not teacher salaries; the bond expenditures are spelled out in detail and will be monitored by an oversight committee, as mandated by Proposition 39; and the district trustees spent two years planning the bond in open meetings.

No matter. Monia and fellow opponents have formed a No on Measure E committee. The group has started raising money to campaign against the bond, Monia says, claiming that more than 1,000 stadium-fearing families have signed up as supporters.

But according to Salter, Monia doesn't want the district to get the bond, no matter what the circumstances: "Vic Monia told me when I first became chancellor that regardless of whether or not the bond measure included any athletic facilities that they would fight it, unless the district scrapped the plans for any improvement of the athletic fields." (Monia confirms the exchange.)

Monia recently filed suit against the district, alleging that it illegally used taxpayer money to advocate the bond in mailings. The district says that the material was informational, not advocational. A hearing is set for Jan. 29.

Our Own People

No on E Treasurer Cheriel Jensen, also an ex-Saratoga City Council member, says she campaigned in favor of the district when it first formed in the mid-'60s. But since then, the longtime resident says, West Valley College has done nothing but destroy the quality of life in the city by hosting events and bringing in students from outside the district (by law, community colleges can't turn away students from outside their boundaries).

"The whole city is going to be disrupted by it," Jensen predicts. "Who knows what they're going to have here? There's nothing stopping them. The traffic would come from all over the valley if they do this. We were promised that they would be our own people, but now they're coming from all over. All these bonds are going to do is let [the district] build and build and build." Additionally, Jensen says, the tax would unfairly impact older residents who live on fixed incomes.

Jensen also fears that the plan would increase traffic in Saratoga, which she says has been impacted by Highway 85 and the music venues at Villa Montalvo and the Mountain Winery.

Her attitudes are in step with a lot of Saratogans, who as a group don't often embrace growth and development. In 1996, city voters passed Measure G, an anti-growth law that put important development applications on the citywide ballot instead of before the Planning Commission and City Council. (At the request of a member of the West Valley Homeowners Association, the Saratoga City Council will consider taking a stand on Measure E at its next meeting.)

Jensen says she'll be raising money for campaign signs and recruiting groups to spread the word against the bond. "It's important not to vote for a great big pile of money and hand it to a bunch of people you don't trust. I'm not willing to give them a blank check, and I'm certainly not willing to build a stadium."

Playing the Field

There's one trustee that Jensen does like: Jeff Schwartz, who served one term in the early '80s and won another in 1998 (Jensen served as his campaign treasurer). From his perch on the dais, Schwartz has blasted fellow board members and district staff for a variety of things, including alleged violations of the state open-meetings act (Kinsella says the district's general counsel didn't see any problems).

Schwartz has also been one of the most vocal critics of the bond and the so-called stadium issue, going back to when he moved to Saratoga 25 years ago. He was also the trustee who recused himself from voting on the bond, because he shares a back fence with West Valley College.

However, Schwartz doesn't refrain from asserting that the college hasn't lived up to the conditions of its original approval in 1967. "A huge percentage of Saratogans have been opposed to that because it was one of the crucial promises that the school made. Now there are a lot of people who are very upset. People made choices about moving or expanding their homes."

The City of Saratoga has also challenged the district over the athletic field issue. The district applied to amend Condition 7 of the original use permit in 1976, but the city denied the request.

Over the years, the district has tried to improve the field without the city's approval, asserting that the city permit isn't a contract. Under state law, a school district may exempt itself from local zoning regulations by a two-thirds vote of the board.

But in 1996, Saratoga sued to block the district from upgrading the field at West Valley. The district prevailed in Superior Court four years later, but the city appealed the ruling. An appeals court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in the case Feb. 13.

Down in Flames

Meanwhile, district officials say West Valley needs a better field--and that calling it a stadium is a misnomer.

From the district's most recent newsletter: "What we are proposing is not a 'stadium,' but simply installing seating and facilities. The current track and field/football facility does not have any permanent seating ... and there is no access for the disabled. The college wants to complete the facility by installing permanent, aluminum bench seating for up to 3,500 spectators. At this size, the facility will actually be smaller than several local high school fields. We also intend to address concerns about lighting by installing a specially designed, reduced-height lighting system to avoid blocking views and to reduce glare and spillage into the adjacent neighborhood. The Facilities Master Plan developed by the college indicates a need for a scoreboard, restrooms, a press box and a snack bar."

According to a recent poll, the school district might get its scoreboard. Pollsters Evans/Mcdonough reported to the board Nov. 15 that "without any information about the bond other than potential ballot language, 45 percent approve and 20 percent lean toward approval, which is beyond the 55 percent needed to pass the measure." Upgrades for safety and access, science and computer labs, and job-training facilities showed the strongest support.

Assemblywoman Elaine Alquist (D-Santa Clara) has signed on as a supporter, as has Mike Fox Sr., a Saratoga beer distributor with a wealth of political connections.

With the bar set lower this year, Measure E supporters are optimistic, but so is the small but energetic group of opponents.

Predicts Monia: "I bet you this one goes down in flames."

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From the January 24-30, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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