District considering how to fund new science building

Dr. James Wright discusses issues with Science Math and Engineering Building in his office. (Matt Garvey/ Lariat)

Matt Garvey

The construction of a new science building at Saddleback College has become a top priority for school officials and district staff because the current 38-year-old science building is suffering from a number of structural deficiencies and is struggling to meet the demands of modern science curriculum.

Implementation of the design phase for a new science building was listed as the No. 2 project for the campus by Saddleback College President Tod A. Burnett earlier this year behind only the recently finished accreditation visit.

“It’s incredibly important for students looking to transfer and earn four year degrees to get the new science building built,” said Burnett. “I want to see a state-of-the-art building.”

At the district level the sentiment is the same.

“A new science building has become an extremely urgent project,” said Acting Chancellor for the South Orange County Community College District (SOCCCD) Dixie Bullock. “Having served for a time as Dean of Math Science and Engineering (MSE), I know first-hand what the limitations of the building are and how that limits what our science faculty can do in teaching their students.”

While it’s clear that a new science building is a top priority, the steps to actually building the new facility remain uncertain. After being approved twice for matching funds from the state of California, the funding has still yet to materialize.

But as the college waits for the funds, the nearly 40-year-old building is in desperate need of renovations. Due to the building’s antiquated state, it is no longer able to provide the education a modern science building should according to James Wright, the current Dean of MSE.

“Our labs are just old,” said Wright. “Science has to be taught in labs and it’s the labs that worry us.”

In the biology department, students do experiments involving many different chemicals. To protect students from hazardous fumes or vapors a device called a fume hood is used to limit exposure. Wright said these fume hoods need to be replaced.

He added that the heat, ventilation and air conditioning system does not working properly on the second floor of the building and the chemistry labs need new vacuum systems.

Perhaps what is most obvious to the untrained eye is the water damage caused by leaks on the first and second floors.

“In one of the classes there was water damage,” said Guler MacDonald, 37, pre-nursing. “Or at least the signs of it.”

Wright confirmed there are deteriorating conditions throughout the building.

Recently 32 facility requests were made by the Math, Science and Engineering division to correct deficiencies in the building.

Since the construction of the MSE building, a number of innovations have redefined the way instructors use a classroom. With the rapid development of technology in education, tools such as PowerPoint and sound systems and online use of multimedia could never have been planned for 40 years ago but now they play a crucial role in the way science is taught.

The science department has managed to upgrade existing classrooms with some of this technology but Wright said that it still falls short of the standards for modern science buildings.

Another strain for the MSE department is the influx of students needing to take their classes to transfer or graduate. It is typical for classrooms in the MSE building to be used from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. five days of the week.

“We turn away 10 to 15 students for each class we teach for math and science. We have high demand classes. There’s more demand than classes we can offer,” Wright said. “We cannot grow because we don’t have enough space for biology, chemistry labs and math classes. There are not enough classrooms or labs. We’re maxed out.”

A unique problem that the MSE department faces when it needs to do renovations is that they have no place to hold classes while the rooms are under construction. The science classes depend so heavily on laboratory work that it is impossible to simply move those classes to someplace like the Village on campus. If the current building is going to be fully renovated then a new science building will need to be in place so the department can continue to offer classes.

“The deans, the faculty and the students have all made it clear that the mass science building needs to be renovated,” President Burnett said. “It’s long overdue. We need a new science building to have state of the art facilities.”

“The science building is everyone’s priority,” said Brandye D’Lena, Director of Facilities Planning and Purchasing for SOCCCD.

D’Lena oversees planning and administration for new construction projects and district-wide purchasing. She has been involved with the planning of a new science building since initial reports were made back in 2006.

After the initial planning a proposal was made by SOCCCD to the California State Chancellor’s office seeking matching funds for the construction. In this case, matching funds means that funds provided through the state budget would be administered by the chancellor’s office and result in the state paying for about 70 percent of the project while the district would pay the other 30 percent.

Upon the first review of the plan in 2008, the project was approved. However, because of slow economic growth and budget problems in Sacramento the Chancellor’s office said they would be unable to provide funding that year and asked the district to re-submit the proposal.

Once again the proposal was submitted in 2009, and then approved, but no funding was available.

Now the project is back in line to be approved with the Chancellor’s office. However, they are saying that no funding should be expected before the 2012-2013 fiscal year.

“For the last two years running we’ve been recommended for funding and we expect to be recommended again,” D’Lena said. “But we have to start asking ourselves do we wait for the state to fund their portion?”

The estimated cost for a new science building is $55 million. If the state was to fund their share that would be $35.6 million which would mean the district would only need to pay for the other $23.2. The Chancellor’s office has said that the district can begin the project of a new science building and those matching funds should arrive in the future, but if they don’t then the district is on the hook for the whole cost of the project.

“Everyone at district level and board included are starting to ask: should we wait? Or should we try to find those funds a different way?” D’Lena said.

A different way to find those funds might be through what is called basic aid funding. Essentially this is funding taken in by the district through local property taxes. For the SOCCCD this fund is much larger than other districts in the state.

“The district has a funding mechanism called basic aid funding. Those basic aid dollars apply to capital improvement projects and apply to technology improvement. Anytime you walk into a new computer lab and have a new computer in front of you that comes from basic aid dollars,” explained D’Lena.

A new science building would not be the only project competing for these basic aid dollars. Currently construction on the library is absorbing some of these dollars and there always seems to be demand for newer and better computers on campus which could require funding through basic aid.

“Well, the science building is kind of older,” said Alyssa Van Valen, 19, nursing. “It would be nicer to have a newer building but I don’t know if it would help me any because I’d be gone by the time it’s finished.”

“The board wants to be very careful with its decisions because they always want
to do what’s best for the students,” said D’Lena.

“We don’t know if we are going to get any funds at all. We can’t wait anymore that’s the problem,” Burnett said. “We can’t wait for state matching funds. So the district and the board will have to decide what kind of funding will they use for the building.”

“It doesn’t matter to me how we pay for it, we just need to pay for it,” Burnett added.

In the near future the SOCCCD Board of Trustees is expected to receive a recommendation from the district about what action to take on the planning for construction of a new science building.