Courtesy of Layna Lapikas _ The Higlander

As concertgoers drive down the 10 Freeway for the second weekend of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, they encounter multiple imposing billboards featuring Desert Community College District trustee Bea Gonzalez. Her face is plastered on the right side of the billboard against a loud orange background, with a caption reading, “Bea Gonzalez. Shame on you for voting against COD students!” 

The “watchdog” group Promises Made Promises Broken is sponsoring the billboard and is alluding to the highly controversial expansion plan for the College of the Desert (COD) in downtown Palm Springs which Gonzalez opposes. Gonzalez is pushing for COD to build its new campus in her district, “putting [the new campus] in Palm Springs makes no sense since there’s already a smaller facility there, and far more students reside in cities such as Cathedral City and Desert Hot Springs…”  Expansion supporters, like Promises Made Promises Broken, argue the new campus in downtown Palm Springs will foster “double the current enrollment” of East Valley residents — to reverse a decline of 16% between the fall of 2020 and 2021. They suggest the campus location also creates space for “new programs such as hospitality, engineering and film.” 

Plans for COD’s expansion began 20 years ago when the college raised approximately $346 million in a voter-approved bond to develop a new campus in North Palm Springs. In addition, the City of Palm Springs gifted the college 120 acres of land for the campus. However, the original plan was derailed when Southern California Edison withdrew from building solar panels to supply campus electricity. 

In 2016, new plans were brought forward to build the new campus at a downtown mall in Palm Springs. But when Martha Gracia succeeded Joel Kinnamon as President of COD, the plans stalled due to declining enrollment and reduced funds during the pandemic. After the 2022 election, former President Kinnamon returned to the board of trustees — despite retiring in 2016 — and has been pushing for his previous version of the expansion plan to be passed. Kinnamon has been heavily criticized for not following through on his promise to invest COD in “each desert city” and for getting into a “physical altercation” with a Gonzalez supporter during a meeting. 

Muddying things further, COD is currently attempting to sell the land to real estate developer Watermarke Homes and is even in litigation with the City of Palm Springs for violating the California Public Records Act after they failed to meet deadlines for submitting records of tax funds spending. Although there is much more to the COD project timeline, including a defamation lawsuit and an investigation to censure a board trustee, it’s clear that the COD plans have been fruitless and will not improve anytime soon if the COD board cannot agree on a location for the new campus. Unfortunately, while the Board argues, it’s the underserved, disadvantaged students who suffer.  

About 60% of both Desert Hot Springs and Cathedral City are Latino. Additionally, the poverty rate in Desert Hot Springs is 21%, and is 17.3% in Cathedral City. For comparison, 71.7% of the population in Palm Springs is white and earns a median household income of $67,451. 

The new COD campus should be built in the community with the greatest need for the opportunity and would benefit the most from it. By advocating for her district and underserved students, Gonzalez is doing her job as a representative and is not caving to the possible economic benefits of building the campus in downtown Palm Springs. 

Plus, Promises Made Promises Broken may not necessarily be considered as representing local residents. As a “501(c)(4)” group, Promises Made Promises Broken is not required to disclose its members or how the group spends its funds. The group’s founder, Bruce Hoban, said in an interview that one billboard in Coachella Valley costs “$500 to $4,000 a month” — an expensive price for multiple billboards. On the website, the group also states they are a “group of concerned residents of the Coachella Valley.” This statement does not specify its members as Palm Springs residents, which raises questions about what other interests are at play here. 

Until Promises Made Promises Broken is transparent about its members and donors, this group cannot be considered the voice of local residents. “Watch-dog” groups are important to keeping leaders accountable — which COD leadership seems to need — but Promises Made Promises Broken’s public intimidation and bullying tactics against Gonzalez are hypocritical for a group that doesn’t want to show its faces.

Ultimately, underserved Coachella students are hurting from COD’s botched leadership. Taxpayers deserve to have their money go towards building a campus in their community. As a public institution, COD has a responsibility to provide equitable access and opportunity to all its students. Hopefully, by next year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, the billboards will say, “New COD campus, serving all students in Coachella Valley.” 

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