The article below originally appeared in The Mercury News and is being reprinted with permission.

In a bygone era, when California was flush with cash and a firm commitment to public education — at all levels — was paramount, what were then known as junior colleges were tuition-free for all adult residents of the Golden State.

In those days, the state had, by far, the largest system of free, two-year colleges in the U.S. No more. As the decades rolled on, that setup went the way of the Edsel. It’s now a distant memory.

But the goal of no-tuition, two-year public colleges is not dead. Witness what’s happening in the San Mateo County Community College District. In that district’s three schools — Canada College in Redwood City, College of San Mateo and Skyline College in San Bruno — most students who live in San Mateo County do not pay tuition today, according to Chancellor Ron Galatolo.

They are part of a state-initiated program, College Promise, that seeks to reduce tuition to zero (it’s currently $46 per unit) if they meet certain criteria based on economic and other specific circumstances.

Galatolo last week said the number of such pupils is about 19,000. He noted that 33,000 of the district’s roughly 40,000 students (both full- and part-time) reside in the county.

So what about the other 14,000 who live here but don’t qualify for free tuition? What’s stopping the district, self-funded via soaring local property tax revenues and one of the wealthiest in the state by any calculation, from embracing them in a tuition-free model as well? After all, the property taxes paid by them and their families are providing significant monies for the district’s operations.

Galatolo agreed that such a target would be laudable and an appropriate pay-back for generous taxpayers who continue to support the district. But, he said, the financial needs of the other, less-advantaged students remain the district’s top priority at this time.

He stated that those individuals still have to pay for books, transportation and a variety of fees. And that can be daunting for them, he said.

What’s more, he said, there is the matter of food. At the elementary and secondary levels of public education, there is a long-standing government meal program for disadvantaged students. One-third of all youngsters in county public schools, K-12, take part in that effort today.

However, once they arrive on a community college campus as adults, explained the chancellor ruefully, that benefit goes away. “I wonder about that,” he said. “I’d like to see us take a look at it.”

As for adding those 14,000 county pupils to the no-tuition rolls, that would cost just over $8 million (out of an operating budget of about $160 million), he added. It was emphasized that this figure was the same amount as this year’s increase in the district’s hefty property tax haul.

Galatolo’s tenure

For the record, the current academic year, 2016-17, marks the local chancellor’s 16th year in that leadership chair in San Mateo.

He pointed out that the average length of stay for a California community college system’s boss is about three years. So he’s beating the odds dramatically in a public post that’s generally about as stable as the San Andreas Fault.

On Galatolo’s watch, the local district has seen its taxpayers OK three big construction bond packages which total more than $1 billion. Combined with state matching dollars, the final figure approaches $1.5 billion.

Add in fees and interest and we are talking about a bottom line figure in the neighborhood of perhaps $2 billion, an all-time record for a county public school district. Nothing is close to that number.

What’s more, in the depths of the Great Recession, voters approved a temporary parcel tax to help the district to weather that fiscal storm. That levy was allowed to lapse.

Canada College in Redwood City.

Canada College in Redwood City.