Foothill-De Anza Community College District's Measure E -- which required a two-thirds majority to pass -- was trailing in early returns with only 57 percent.
Revenue from the six-year, $69-a-year parcel tax would offset $20 million in state cuts sustained by the colleges, allowing them to restore classes and labs for more than 10,000 students on wait lists this fall, supporters said.
At a campaign gathering at BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse in Cupertino, students who had worked phone banks and gone door-to-door for Measure E said voters they spoke with generally supported Foothill and De Anza.
"Most people wanted to further young people's education and have it available for future high schoolers," De Anza student Vanessa Rosas said.
But the nation's anti-tax mood made it tough for Measure E to achieve the required two-thirds majority, said Foothill student Etiene Bowie, who grew up in East Palo Alto.
"The word 'tax' is just toxic right now," Bowie said. "This is a national thing -- it does not reflect on our school.
"I made 400 phone calls -- maybe more. Most of the voters I talked to said 'yes,' they supported it, but there were a lot of undecided people and they were scared of the word 'tax.'"
Measure E also was hurt by scrutiny of the district's average faculty salaries that, at more than $93,000 a year, are on the higher -- though not the highest -- end of California community colleges.
Foothill's Bowie criticized the salary argument.
"The faculty makes the school," he said. "Our opponents used that (salary argument) very well against us."
De Anza student Arvind Ravichandran said, "We're going to miss this campaign. We had a routine, and it was a good opportunity to learn about civic duty."
Palo Altans were well-represented at the gathering of about 50 campaign volunteers.
Former Palo Alto Mayor Betsy Bechtel, a member of the Foothill-De Anza Board of Trustees, chaired the Measure E campaign. Foothill-De Anza board Chair Bruce Swenson is also a Palo Alto resident, as were a number of campaign volunteers.