Maricopa Community Colleges Pushed '04 Bond for Enrollment Increase That Didn't Happen

The Maricopa County Community College District urged voters to approve $951 million in bond sales in 2004 to prepare for a 60-percent projected increase in student enrollment.

After it passed, the district spent hundreds of millions from the sale of the bonds to add or renovate nearly 2 million square feet for the district's 10 college campuses.

Yet enrollment has fallen or remained flat at the campuses in the past 10 years, leading to questions about whether the money was well-spent.

Juxtaposing the numbers like that wasn't our idea -- but it's sure interesting. We talked to a district spokesman after receiving a brief report on the issue from a watch-dogging reader who believes voters were misled.

Tom Gariepy, district spokesman, had to admit that an FAQ about the bond election the district still has online is not completely accurate.

The FAQ states:

"Why do the Maricopa Community Colleges need almost a billion dollars? The State of Arizona provides 12% of the operating budget for the Maricopa Community Colleges. The rest is paid for by students and Maricopa County taxpayers. However, the bonds are not used for operational funds, only for capital funding. In other words, the bonds pay for buildings, parking lots, sidewalks, classrooms, offices, laboratories, equipment and land. The State provides almost none of the money needed for these items.

With annual student growth exceeding population growth in the county, it is projected that almost 400,000 students will be attending the community colleges every year by 2010. Master plans, prepared by each of the colleges and the District in a public process over the past two years, have shown that current classroom and laboratory space and facilities will not be adequate to meet the needs of that many students."

Roughly 250,000 students were attending the colleges back then.

But in a counter-intuitive spin, Gariepy tells us that the bond was undersold to the public, not oversold.

Gariepy tells us that, in fact, the district's per-student spending was well below national averages, and the 2004 bond was actually intended to get the district caught up. If the enrollment projects based on county trends had actually come true, the near-billion-dollar-bond sale would not have -- contrary to the FAQ -- been adequate "to meet the needs of that many students."

A political mailer sent to county homes at the time repeats the assertion that the bond election is crucial in order to "keep up with rapid student growth."

"By 2010, our Community Colleges must provide space for another 150,000 students," says the mailer, produced by a group including major players like Walmart and Banner Health Systems. "The time to act is now."

The district has more than one way to measure student headcount, it seems. One district graph shows 278,093 students in 2004, and 256,239 students in 2013, for a drop of about 8 percent. Another graph used in a district financial report shows a very slight increase of less than one-half of 1 percent. (Gariepy was trying to get detail on the difference as of Tuesday evening -- we'll update this post as necessary.)

Either way, our reader who passed along these figures has a point in that this is the opposite of "Field of Dreams:" The district built it, but they didn't come.

True, the projection of such a large increase in students made sense back then, and few predicted the Great Recession that vacuumed up the country's money in 2008 and 2009 and contributed to the long-term decline in enrollment. Legit questions remain, though, about the necessity of the 2004 bond election.

Apparently, gains have been made in the district in terms of online students and enrollment at some satellite campuses, like Glendale Community College North. But enrollment at GCC's main campus and others, like Mesa Community College, is either flat or on the downswing.

MCC's decline over the past 10 years is between 8 and 13 percent, again, depending on how it's measured. Meanwhile, MCC had a 20 percent increase in square footage on its main campus.

This "does not make the colleges a responsible steward of the taxpayers' funds," says our industrious reader, who wishes to stay anonymous for now.

Gariepy says there's no reason to believe the district misspent or misapplied the bond money over the years despite the increase in students that never happened. New buildings on campus aren't just about classroom space, he argued. For example, a new performing arts building would serve the entire community.

A more detailed analysis of how the community-college district spent the bond money seems warranted, so stay tuned.

Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Ray Stern on Twitter at @RayStern.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.