The science labs at Northern Virginia Community College's Annandale campus are about 10 years older than most of the biology and chemistry students. Professors who have taught at the school for 30 years have been promised since their early days on campus that the dilapidated labs will be updated.
Students from elsewhere who take summer classes at the two-year school are, well, "what's a nice word for appalled?" Dean Susan Wagner said recently. "One of our former presidents got letters from students that basically said what a good course they took, but the labs were subpar."
Roofs leak, air-conditioning and heating systems fail and classrooms are crowded at Annandale and the college's four other campuses. To finance some of the repairs and improvements, the state government proposed a $900 million bond issue for higher education and museums. Voters will be asked to approve it Nov. 5.
That bond question is one of two on the statewide ballot. The other asks voters to approve $119 million in bonds to improve state parks and preserve natural areas. If passed, it would provide money to buy land for parks and open space and to expand recreation areas.
The two bond questions are fighting for visibility on a ballot crowded with questions about amendments, bonds and taxes. Most of the attention in the campaign has gone to the transportation tax proposals in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads.
While opposition to the state bond issues has been muted, supporters are uncertain of victory. They fear that the two bond questions won't pass if turnout is low or if people opposed to the transportation taxes vote against the bond questions as well.
"I think there probably will be some folks who will be upset with the governor . . . and will vote no, and some who will be confused by all of the questions and will vote no on everything," said James T. Parmelee, the spokesman for a coalition that opposes the sales tax increase for transportation. "Most people, though, are going to pick and choose what they vote for."
His group is not taking any position on the bonds, he said, but three others -- the Fairfax County Taxpayers Alliance, the Virginia Taxpayers Association and the Virginia Campground Association -- are urging voters to reject the bond questions.
"Using bonds for annual expenses is wasting a billion dollars in interest," said Arthur G. Purves, president of the county taxpayers group.
Bond supporters have formed a nonprofit organization, Foundation 2002. The group boasts endorsements from politicians of both major parties, local chambers of commerce and statewide business groups. Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) has campaigned ardently for the bond issues.
To get out the student vote for the bonds, voter registration drives are being held at campuses across Virginia. At the College of William and Mary, students formed a political action committee, started a Web site, www.putstudentsfirst.org and raised $15,000 for the campaign.
"We love William and Mary. We just want it to do well," said Brian R. Cannon, a junior at the school who is chairman of the PAC. "It's kind of like giving back. It's our duty to help the next generation of students at the school."
Backers of the two bond issues say their best way to win passage is to deliver a basic message to voters: Virginia's highly regarded public colleges and universities and its prestigious parks have been neglected and need sprucing up.
The last higher education bond issue was approved a decade ago, and college officials say dozens of expansion and renovation projects need financing.
School buildings are aging, and more students are using them. About 350,000 students attend Virginia's public colleges and universities, and the total is expected to grow by 32,000 in eight to 10 years as the students crowding middle and high schools turn 18.
About $80 million of the bond money would go to George Mason University in Fairfax to construct classroom and research buildings and expand existing ones. Mary Washington College in Fredericksburg would get $18 million to renovate four academic buildings, a campus auditorium and a theater.
The bond issue also includes $54 million for publicly owned museums in Virginia, including a $28 million renovation and expansion at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
If the parks bond passes, it will provide money for three new state parks, including one in the Seven Bends area of the Shenandoah River and two new natural area preserves in Clarke and Culpeper counties. Eleven existing parks would expand, including Lake Anna State Park in Spotsylvania County and Sky Meadows State Park in Clarke and Fauquier counties.
Park bond money also would pay for shoreline erosion control as well as improvements and repairs at 34 parks.
Specific projects to be financed by both bond issues were approved by the Virginia General Assembly this year.
"It's unsexy stuff," said Alan Davis, a spokesman for Foundation 2002, "but it's protecting what we have already."
He also said that passage of the bond issues would create 14,000 short-term construction jobs across Virginia while the economy is sputtering.
But to many supporters of the bond issues, their passage is just as important for reasons of reputation and prestige. Virginia's park system has been voted the nation's best managed by the National Recreation and Park Association. However, the state ranks last in the nation in percentage of its budget spent on parks.
Some of its public universities are compared with the Ivy League, yet the last bond referendum was 10 years ago. Maryland and North Carolina have made capital improvements to their schools in that time, according to backers of the Virginia bond. The bond does not have to pass for capital improvements to be made, but bond backers argue that passing the ballot issue ensures that they will be.
"We don't want the perception [among students] to be 'I'm not getting my money's worth.' We don't want them to leave the state," said Susan E. Davis, a spokeswoman for Northern Virginia Community College. "It's a vital issue for the commonwealth."