SRJC Foundation board will reconsider $20,000 gift to mental health tax campaign
A $20,000 contribution from the Santa Rosa Junior College Foundation to the campaign for a local tax measure funding mental health and homeless services will be reconsidered Friday at a meeting of the nonprofit’s board of directors.
The SRJC Foundation gave $20,000 on Sept. 25 to the committee supporting Measure O, a proposed quarter-cent countywide tax to fund mental health programs. The contribution was proposed by SRJC President Frank Chong, who serves as secretary of the foundation’s board and is a co-chair of the Measure O campaign.
The donation was approved by the board’s six-member executive committee, on which Chong sits, and disclosed inside a report presented to the full board at a Sept. 17 retreat. But at least one member of the 15-member board of trustees did not notice the disclosure in the report and, upon a second reading, objected last week, urging fellow trustees to rescind the donation.
Doug Garrison, formerly vice president and executive dean of SRJC’s Petaluma campus and a past president of Monterey Peninsula College, said he does not object to Measure O specifically but is concerned about the board’s involvement in political activity.
“It isn't about the campaign,” Garrison told The Press Democrat on Wednesday. “It's about whether or not the foundation board should be contributing to political campaigns, period.”
Garrison’s concerns prompted a meeting Friday morning to reconsider the process by which the foundation contributes to political campaigns and the Measure O campaign itself.
If a majority of the board votes against the contribution on Friday, Chong said the foundation would ask for a refund from the Measure O campaign.
The donation amounted to just over 10% of the $155,202 received by the committee supporting the tax as of Oct. 17, according to county campaign finance reports. The Measure O committee had a little over $29,000 in cash on hand on that date and has received at least $15,000 more since then.
The foundation was established to raise funds for SRJC students and educational programs. In a 2019 filing with the Internal Revenue Service, the foundation reported about $60.3 million in net assets and funds, and it counted among its key accomplishments the awarding of more than $3.66 million to “deserving students.”
Federal tax rules prohibit nonprofits like the foundation from explicitly partisan behavior, but some political activity is allowed, such as the contribution to the Measure O ballot measure. And there are internal precedents for the foundation’s most recent political gift.
A similar situation played out on a larger scale in 2002, when the foundation gave $175,000 toward a $251 million bond measure, the first in SRJC’s history. After the donation came to light, it was opposed by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, which regularly campaigns against new spending measures.
The foundation also contributed $25,000 in 2014 to support a $410 million SRJC bond and gave $10,000 in 2016 to support Proposition 51, a state bond measure for public schools.
The Measure O contribution was “appropriate and permissible,” Chong said in an interview Wednesday, adding that the foundation can make these types of funding choices “as long as it has direct benefit to the college, which this does.”
Measure O would generate about $250 million over a decade for a variety of mental health programs and services. Just over $8 million of that would go to SRJC to help the college
“It would be wonderful if we were able have those resources, which we don’t right now,” Chong said.
The consternation over the contribution amounts to another rough patch in Chong’s tenure at SRJC, which has been marked by falling enrollment and a vote of no-confidence by faculty members since he arrived in 2012 to continue a decadeslong educational career.
“I’ve always tried to do the right thing,” Chong said. “Sometimes we get it right, and sometimes we get it wrong.”
Typically, decisions on whether to spend the foundation’s money on political activity go before the full board — and that didn’t happen here, Chong acknowledged. He blamed himself for a lack of oversight while noting that the foundation’s executive director, W. John “J” Mullineaux, is relatively new to the organization, having joined in late 2019.
“In hindsight, we should have taken it to the full board with a vote,” Chong said. “It’s the right thing to do.”
You can reach Staff Writer Will Schmitt at 707-521-5207 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @wsreports.