Cars aren't what they used to be, and neither are automotive technician programs. They're computer-based these days, necessitating a higher skill set.

"They're not cars our dads and grandpas drove and fixed in their backyards," says Gilbert Sena, the lead faculty member of the automotive program at Santa Fe Community College.

Sena has been working on cars since the 1970s, and teaching people how to work on them for nearly as long. He spearheaded SFCC's automotive mechanics curriculum in 2015 after Northern New Mexico College shuttered its auto program. Students who started courses then are now beginning their capstone courses, a final step toward an associate degree.

But the program, which currently serves about 80 students, has had trouble recruiting. The primary reason: It needs more space.

That's a major reason why SFCC is putting a $17 million general obligation bond to a vote on Feb. 6, though early voting is currently in effect until Feb. 3. It is one of two bond questions for the community college that are up for a vote. The second question asks voters to approve a bond restructure that would decrease the school's capital mill and increase its operating mill.

Of the $17 million total, $7 million would go toward building a new 17,000-square-foot auto center on the campus, while the other $10 million would pay for infrastructural repairs at the college's fitness center, expansion of technological services on campus and upgrades to certain instructional facilities.

The automotive program stands to get the biggest facelift. Currently, it is spread out across three areas in the city: The main campus itself off Richards Avenue, the Higher Education Center on Siringo Road, and a 2,000-square-foot garage that can only fit two cars at a time—and it's the only place students get the hands-on experience in their coursework.

"The bond is needed because we don't have any space," says auto student Jason Anaya, taking a break from a Monday afternoon class at the HEC. A number of larger tools necessary for instruction, such as several car lifts and large toolboxes to store specialized electronics, just don't fit in the shop.

Among other areas that would benefit from the general obligation bond are programs for greenhouse management and sustainable technologies, says Todd Lovato, director of marketing for the school. A simulation emergency room featuring several life-sized mannequins that breathe and bleed would also see an infusion.

"A lot of classroom improvement projects are going to go directly to these kind of workforce development needs in terms of healthcare, STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics], green technology—all of these different high-need areas for the future of our country," Lovato tells SFR.

In addition to the $17 million bond, the ballot also features a new tax levy. It asks voters to approve a rise in the existing tax levy of $3 per $1,000 of taxable property to $3.35. According to calculations by Nick Telles, SFCC's vice president of finance and chief financial officer, a vote of "yes" for both the general obligation bond and the restructuring would decrease the school's capital mill but increase its operating mill, keeping the tax rate at its current level.

For example, a home with a market value of $300,000 would still owe about $369 in taxes a year if voters say yes to both questions. If they both fail, the same household would pay about $317 and the school would receive no improvements.

Over the last two years, the college, which maintains an annual budget of about $35 million, has lost about $1 million dollars in funding from the state, Telles says. This has resulted in a slight tuition increase for students living in New Mexico, a substantially higher increase for out-of-state students, three administrative layoffs and the loss of three academic programs last summer, although the respiratory care program was "resuscitated" when Christus St. Vincent committed to funding it for two years, according to Lovato.

The mill-levy vote is the first for the school since 2010. The college gets 49 percent of its revenue from the local tax base, insulating it from unpredictability at the state level. About 5,500 for-credit students are currently enrolled, and a total of 15,000 take classes each year.

"We're lucky because Santa Fe, historically in our local appropriations, has always been very supportive of our community college," says Telles.

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Voters will also decide whether to renew a 2 mill property tax levy for SFPS

Santa Fe Public Schools is asking voters to re-approve a 2 mill levy on property taxes for maintenance, security systems, infrastructural repairs and other general upkeep for the district's 27 campus sites, plus six charter schools. Superintendent Veronica Garcia likens the vote to maintaining a car or a home.

"This particular election is really [about] protecting their investment they've already made in their schools," Garcia tells SFR. "There's no other funding source for us; if bonding capacity exists, which [it does] in Santa Fe, there's no other pot of money to go to for this kind of much-needed expenditure."

Voters will determine whether or not to renew the bond, known as SB-9. Between the 2012-2013 school year and 2016-2017, the bond brought in a total of $59.8 million. About half went to facilities repair and maintenance for campus grounds, security and fire protection, playgrounds and athletic fields; the rest largely went to IT capacity across the district, and a smaller sliver went to programming for art, music and athletics and other curriculum support.

If approved, the SB-9 revenue source will bring in $11.5 million per year for district schools plus $1.5 million annually for six charter schools. The total cost of the levy would be $78 million by 2023. The SB-9 tax has been in effect since 1979 and comes out to about $2 per $1,000 of taxable property, or about $200 a year for a $300,000 home.

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Early voting locations, through Feb 3: 

  • Gonzales Community School, 851 W. Alameda
  • Nina Otero Community School, 5901 Herrera Drive
  • Santa Fe Public Schools Educational Services Center, Conference Room A, 610 Alta Vista Street
  • Santa Fe Community College Lower Level, 6401 Richards Avenue
  • Santa Fe County Clerk, 102 Grant Avenue