Hiba Siraj was ready. A biology student at Central Piedmont Community College, she needed to take organic chemistry this fall to graduate in the spring and transfer to a four-year school.
Yet the college only has enough laboratory space to offer two classes of 25 students. By the time Siraj could click the register button on the schools website, both classes were full.
Thats put her behind an academic year a common refrain at the states largest community college. Since 2006, enrollment has surged 37 percent but new construction was temporarily halted after the economy soured a year later.
In response, CPCC officials are pushing the Nov. 5 education bond proposal, which referendum that would provide $210 million over five years to renovate classroom buildings, buy land and build nearly 1 million square feet of space on its six campuses.
With so many students and too little classroom and laboratory space, college officials say the added space would mean fewer students would be turned away from classes they need.
Fewer students whod have to go through what Siraj is experiencing.
Now I have to wait a whole year to get into the class, and Im supposed to be graduating in the spring, said the Pakistani immigrant, who wants to become a dentist. I will probably have to transfer to a school like UNC Charlotte, but it would be without getting my (associate) degree.
Doesnt meet state standard
North Carolina community colleges are required to provide 100 square feet of instructional space for every full-time student. By 2007, CPCC had 78 square feet per student. But as enrollment spiraled and the recession set in, the county went on a debt diet and froze new building projects until 2011-12. That year, CPCC got $41 million to complete building and renovation projects.
That brought some relief, but CPCC today still offers only 58 square feet per student. The new projects would boost it to 70 square feet, said CPCC President Tony Zeiss.
In January 2012, the school began planning for the next five years, identifying about $430 million in needs. But after Mecklenburg County commissioners, who control bond spending, told them not to be so ambitious, CPCC came up with 10 top projects that will cost a total of $280 million.
The projects include building 120,000 square feet at the colleges Levine Campus in Matthews, with a middle college for high school students that would be a partnership between CPCC and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. The two would partner again at the Harper Campus, including another middle college among the 150,000 square feet of new classroom space there.
There would also be 100,000 square feet of new space for high-tech advanced manufacturing training at the Central Campus near uptown and an additional 100,000 square feet of space at the Merancas Campus in Huntersville.
Were a career college, thats what were all about training students for jobs, Zeiss said. People need jobs and need to get trained. Most of that training comes in labs.
So when it takes longer to get into classes, were having to tell far too many students, Im sorry, were going to have to interrupt your progress toward your degree because we dont have enough lab space.
Training for future economy
The college has been a critical partner in job training, particularly in energy and health sciences.
Zeiss and CPCC have been part of an effort to plan a new economic vision for Charlotte. In recent years, the city, he said, has focused on three economic hubs: finance, energy and health care.
We saw what happened in 2008; a lot of people lost jobs, he said. We need to broaden our economic base.
That would include training for advanced manufacturing jobs; logistical jobs, such as those needed for the intermodal rail and trucking facility under construction at Charlotte Douglas International Airport; and entrepreneurial skills to create more small businesses, Zeiss said.
The city is poised for a new boom and the college has to be there and be ready, he said. If we cant provide the people for those jobs, then the vision likely is not going to be achieved.
Wouldnt raise tax rate
Mecklenburg commissioners approved the November bond proposal and an additional $70 million that would be built into yearly budgets and paid as projects are underway and completed. That brings the total to $280 million in project spending.
Theres been little opposition to the CPCC bonds, though some residents in the Elizabeth community have complained in recent years that the colleges latest building projects on Central Campus such as much-needed parking decks have begun to encroach on their neighborhood. Two suburban groups that have urged voters to reject the $290 million CMS proposal have said they wont take a stand on CPCC.
The college stresses that the bonds wouldnt raise taxes.
That is true, said county commissioner Bill James, because for the first time Mecklenburg has a dedicated bond fund from which the money for the CPCC and CMS projects would be pulled.
Because of the fund, the bonds pass financial muster. That means we have money set aside that allows us to pay our debt without raising taxes, James said.
What voters must decide, he said, is whether the money should be used on these particular projects.
James, who went to a community college before transferring to a four-year school, said he believes the CPCC projects are reasonable. I believe CPCC can survive with (the money) or without it. But will it make the institution more effective and provide more opportunities for kids? I think the answer is yes.
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