When it comes to the $502.8 million Bakersfield College bond that’s heading to the ballot boxes this November, the message is clear: Appeal to veterans.
Veterans are mentioned 23 times in a 12-page resolution describing the purpose of the bond measure, approved Thursday by Kern Community College District trustees; when asked, BC President Sonya Christian highlighted the $10 million veterans resource center as the top priority on the project list; bond measure language emphasizes that classroom repairs would specifically benefit veterans in need of “good-paying jobs” and that construction would ensure access for disabled students, “including veterans.”
Student veteran Wesley Lyons spoke during Thursday's board meeting about the difficulties of finding work after returning from service and how BC has helped him plot a career path. Trustee Kay Meek halted him as he turned from the podium.
“Wesley,” she said in front of the standing-room-only board meeting filled with news reporters. “We very much thank you for your service.”
It was met with roaring applause.
Veterans, more than any other group, appeal to Kern County voters, according to research conducted by FM3 Research, a Los Angeles-based polling and research company contracted by the district. Despite making up just 2.3 percent of the 25,000 student population at Bakersfield College, former military service members are a centerpiece of the institution's formal statement about the bond.
“Veterans are coming home,” John Fairbank, an FM3 pollster, told board members Thursday. “This is where they're coming home to.”
Voters will be reminded of that Nov. 8. Veterans are named twice in the slim 75-word ballot language.
Veterans’ rights have dominated headlines for years, be it returning service members’ long waits for health care or the shocking statistic that roughly 20 veterans commit suicide daily.
KCCD Trustee Kyle Carter confirmed that the district is crafting that campaign message around veterans because it resonates with voters in Kern County.
“It's just something that's a hot ticket item right now, and BC is trying to help them,” Carter said. “It's a campaign to get their bond through, so they want to try to hit on all cylinders. ... They see veterans as ... a group that we should be helping.”
Those veterans are deeply embedded in the consciousness of voters, said Mike Turnipseed, executive director of the Kern Taxpayers Association.
“I would say there are several sensitivities that people can agree with on issues, and I think that veterans now have a much higher sensitivity to the general public,” Turnipseed said. “They have a higher place in the consciousness of people with job skills and improving their lives.”
Evidence reflects that. When pollsters surveyed 600 respondents in 2015 asking whether they would support a $605 million bond measure, they mentioned veterans once. More than 57 percent said they probably or definitely would vote in favor of that measure.
Last month, pollsters surveyed respondents again, but mentioned veterans twice in the bond language, driving home that the $527 million would go toward creating equal access for disabled veterans and good paying jobs for returning service members. More than 70 percent were in favor of the bond.
“Job training and veterans are powerful themes,” the 2015 research notes, especially among swing voters.
And it seems to be shaping the message of the bond campaign. In a press release distributed after the trustees voted Thursday to place the bond on the ballot, a special emphasis was placed on veterans.
“Thousands of military veterans, many of whom have recently returned from war zones and face challenges, rely on Bakersfield, Cerro Coso and Porterville colleges to reintegrate with their education and careers,” KCCD Chancellor Sandra Serrano said in the statement.
When pollsters surveyed voters in 2015, they learned that a nearly identical statement about KCCD serving “thousands of military veterans, many whom have recently returned from war zones and face challenges including post-traumatic stress disorder and permanent disability” resonated with 74 percent of respondents.
When asked about that statement Friday, Serrano told The Californian that the district is “working with professionals” and “reviewing language to remake edits” to ensure that it reflects the district's intentions.
Serrano said that the district's work with consulting groups has informed how it is asking voters to pass its bond, but that it falls in line with the district's needs for veteran students. Cerro Coso College services two military bases, she said, and if the measure is approved it will allow a flood of services for former military members.
“I don't know that I can tell you anything else other than it represents our intentions based on our needs as we know them, understand them and experience them, and we do have a large veteran groups in our colleges,” Serrano said.
In an interview with The Californian, Fairbank said the message of the bond campaign has more to do with upgrading old buildings than it does with veterans. But he acknowledged the impact that veterans issues have with voters.
“Voters basically of all persuasions want veterans to be taken care of. They want them to have a good education, (and) they want the facilities and the classrooms ready for them — up to date, top notch. They just think this a top priority for this country,” Fairbank said.
Fairbank, asked why the bond language was changed during polling between 2015 and 2016 to include more mentions of veterans, said he wasn't aware it had changed.
“I don't think (how) many times you mention veterans (matters) ... The main point here is to make sure that voters know as the vets come home they're using these community colleges,” Fairbank said. “I don't think that’s any particular significance whether (they're mentioned) once or twice.”