The makeup of the Kern Community College District board of trustees could be significantly different come November.
Developer Kyle Carter is running to keep the Area 1 seat he was elected to in 2014. Area 1’s other trustee, retired congressman Bill Thomas, is not running for re-election. He was appointed to serve out the rest of Rick Wright’s term — Wright left the board in 2016 — and Thomas is keeping a promise to his wife, Sharon, not to run again.
Four challengers are bidding for the two Bakersfield-focused seats: legal consultant Lorenzo Alvarez, independent contractor Karen DeWalt, retired electrician Jerry Melson and retired Bakersfield College administrator Nan Gomez-Heitzeberg, all from Bakersfield.
“There’s lots of important things left to do,” said Carter, asked why he seeks another term. “With Measure J (bond money still on the table), I would like to stay plugged in and see that through. I want to see us finish what we’ve started.”
Measure J is a $502 million bond measure that was passed by voters in 2016 largely for the construction of facilities at Bakersfield College, including a new veterans center, a science and engineering building and an administration building.
Carter and Thomas have differed on the best approach to funding that construction. Thomas and a consistent majority of the board have advocated for a five-year, 2020-24 buildout of all the projects, with the construction on many of them starting before 2020. That plan was approved by the board in July. Most of the incremental votes related to Measure J to this point have been 5-1 and 6-1, with Carter the lone dissenter.
Carter has said he believes the construction projects should be apportioned over 10 to 12 years, saying that a slower pace of construction and spending would be less disruptive to students and staff and would give the district a longer time frame to pay back the general obligation bonds they are issuing.
“We’re wasting the money by compressing this into a five-year schedule. We’re going to end up having to borrow against the bond money,” he said. “I would love to wave my magic wand and have the buildings done today, but construction doesn’t work that way.”
Thomas said students and employees need the buildings now and that, if the construction projects were spread out over a longer period of time, inflation would reduce the buying power of the bond money.
“Why in the world would you want to double the risk at the cost of the taxpayers when we know we can do it in five (years)?” he said.
Thomas is backing Gomez-Heitzeberg, Bakersfield College's retired executive vice president of instruction. Thomas said she shares some of his opinions and values and believes she would be a good replacement for him.
“I would be very comfortable with her vote given her knowledge and experience. None of the people who are running have really committed to building a better BC on the plan passed by the board like she has,” Thomas said. “I support her because she clearly would be me (on the board), if that makes sense. I think she’s worthy of being on the board and would be a terrific trustee.”
Gomez-Heitzeberg said she decided to run after hearing that Thomas — with whom she has gained a rapport during her 30-plus years at Bakersfield College — would step down from the board.
“I know there are many capable people who are running, but I don’t think there are any people who know the depths of the district the way I do, so I felt compelled to put my name in,” she said. “Bill’s support means a lot to me.”
The other two candidates running for the board, Lorenzo Alvarez and Jerry Melson, both said they want Measure J projects completed sooner rather than later.
“These projects need to be done now. That’s what the voters wanted,” Alvarez said. “We owe it to the voters and we owe it to the students to get this done.”
Alvarez and Melson have both been previously involved with Bakersfield College. Alvarez has been an assistant football coach and Melson an adjunct faculty member. Both said they wanted to take their service to the college farther.
“I want to give back a little bit,” Melson said. “I’m particularly interested in the Career Technical Education programs the college has. I can certainly lend my expertise and background in helping develop more programs for that.”
Carter is also supporting another candidate: independent contractor Karen DeWalt, who often works at the Bakersfield Music Hall of Fame, of which Carter is a founder.
“I support Karen. I encouraged her to run,” he said. “Having been a member of the Bakersfield City School District board, she’s very knowledgeable about how schools work. I think she would be an excellent choice.”
When it comes to Measure J, DeWalt’s perspective appears to be more in line with Carter’s than other candidates and current members of the board.
“I’m totally in favor of Measure J. I just want the money to be spent wisely and not need any additional (money) because we moved too quickly,” she said. “I ran because I want to do the best for the students and the taxpayers.”
Carter rejected the notion he is trying to stack the board in his favor in order to overturn the district’s decision to move forward with the current construction plan.
“Nobody is trying to create a coup,” he said. “Karen makes her own decisions. I never talked to her about the Measure (J spending options) before she decided to run.”
Carter said it would be a futile effort to try to change the course the board has set.
“I’m not trying to undo the vote or change it. That would be foolish,” he said. “It’s too late, in my opinion. It’s happened. Now we just ride it out.”