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By Paul Bradley  /  
2011 February 8 - 12:00 am

COVER STORY: Zeroed Out

Photo Courtesy Brazosport College

Brazosport College in Lake    Jackson, Texas, shown above, is among four community colleges that would close under a state budget plan. Brazosport currently enrolls more than 4,000 students.

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Zeroed Out
Draft Budget Calls for Closing Four Texas Colleges

By Paul Bradley

You can forgive community college leaders in Texas if they feel a little like the defenders of the Alamo — under siege, with an uncertain future, trying to survive against long odds.

The first draft of Texas’ state budget, submitted to the state House of Representatives late last month, trained some big guns on the state’s community college system, which is the nation’s second largest, with more than 750,000 students.

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Designed to close a $15 billion budget gap, the spending blueprint would cut funding to community colleges by $767 million over two years at a time when enrollment is setting new records. It not only would it cut off financial aid to incoming freshmen and new students, and slash the popular need-based Texas Grants program by 41 percent, but it also calls for four community colleges to get no state money and be shuttered — Brazosport College, Frank Phillips College, Ranger College and Odessa College. The plan would save the state $39 million over two years.

A Senate version of the budget released two weeks after the House plan also makes deep cuts to colleges, but spares the schools targeted for closure.

State political leaders insist that the proposed budgets are merely a starting point for lawmakers as they craft a new two-year budget awash in a sea of red ink. Many of the recommendations will, no doubt, undergo substantial revision before the 82nd Legislature approves a final budget bill.

Some observers have suggested that the spending plan represents an effort to demonstrate to voters, in stark terms, that demanding smaller government and opposing any new taxes means coveted public services will shrink or disappear.

Silver Lining

But there is no doubt that big funding cuts for community colleges are on the way. It’s not a matter of whether, but by how much.

If there is any silver lining in the grey clouds, it’s that the Lone Star State is not alone. As governors across the country lay out their budgets for the upcoming fiscal year, higher education is taking a big hit. California Gov. Jerry Brown wants to reduce community college spending by $450 million. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wants to cut community college spending in half.

Less than a year after community colleges were being celebrated as central to the country’s economic recovery, the tide seemingly has turned.

According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the worst recession since the 1930s has caused the steepest decline in state tax receipts on record. State tax collections, adjusted for inflation, are now 12 percent below pre-recession levels, while the need for state-funded services has increased.

“Even after making very deep spending cuts over the last several years, states continue to face large budget gaps,” the center said in a recent report. “To date some 44 states and the District of Columbia are projecting budget shortfalls for fiscal year 2012, which begins July 1, 2011 in most states. These come on top of the large shortfalls that states closed in fiscal years 2009 through 2011. States will continue to struggle to find the revenue needed to support critical public services for a number of years.”

In Illinois, California and Georgia, governors and legislators are poised to raise taxes to help close yawning budget gaps. But in Texas, a state where the legislature is two-thirds Republican, lawmakers who have promised not to raise taxes are instead cutting deeply into state services.

Higher education long has been a favorite target of budget cutters, who reason that colleges can always raise tuition, and localities can choose to hike local levies to make up for shrinking state support.

But the proposals to slash community college funding and close four colleges altogether have alarmed college leaders. Closing the doors would rob 12,500 students of educational opportunities and undermine the roles they play as the arts, cultural and sports hubs of their host communities.

“This budget makes it clear that there is no longer a state policy when it comes to community colleges,” said Richard Rhodes, chairman of the Texas Association of Community Colleges and president of El Paso Community College. “If a college grows and educates more students, the state does not live up to its commitment to fund growth. However, if a college is perceived by state bureaucrats as somehow growing too slowly, the state will cut all of an institution’s funding.”

“Community colleges are the future of Texas, but this budget proposal seriously reduces our ability to meet the needs of our local communities.”

Mustering Political Support

Said TACC President Rey Garcia: “Communities across Texas will face smaller colleges, offering fewer courses, with fewer support services to fewer students.”

The colleges are scrambling to muster the political support they’ll need to survive the axe of the legislative budget-cutters. They are urging their students to contact lawmakers and make the case for keeping the colleges intact.

“We are taking this very seriously, but also have full confidence that Brazosport College will remain a state-funded institution,” said college President Millicent Valek in an email. “This is a preliminary budget proposal.”

“The community support, including that of our many industrial partners and
local governing entities, is continuing to pour in. It’s a very, very serious concern for us, but we’re firmly convinced that we have a story to tell, and we’re focusing on our future.”

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, a Republican who represents the Lake Jackson region where Brazosport is located, has vowed to fight the spending cuts to the college. He made an unannounced visit to the college in the immediate aftermath of the House budget and vowed that the college will stay open.

“I’m here today because I don’t want a single person to go to bed tonight with a single hesitation in their mind about the future of Brazosport College,” he said, according to the college website.
“Brazosport College, without a doubt, will be funded. No question about it.”

“This is the 15th year I’ve been a state representative. Never, ever, have I made a promise or a guarantee. Ever. Politicians who make them are setting themselves up for failure. I’ve never done it. But I’m doing it today. We will fund this college.”

Critics of the draft spending plan claim that the methodology used to determine which schools to close was badly flawed. The four colleges were selected based on a perceived drop in “contact hours,” the base unit of measure that Texas uses to determine funding for community colleges.

But contact hours can vary greatly, depending on numerous factors, including whether a majority of students attend full- or part-time. Enrollment can increase at the same time that contact hours decline, depending on the ratio of full- and part-time students. Brazosport expects that contact hours will climb significantly when they are finalized in March.

The critics also say that budget writers should have looked beyond mere statistics, examining characteristics such as quality of instruction, ties to the community and the importance of community colleges in attracting business and industry, especially to economically struggling rural regions.

Gregory D. Williams, president of Odessa College, said the House spending plan “is a cause for concern, but not for alarm.”

“We are very aware that this is only the first of many steps in a long and difficult budget process.”

Williams began making the case for keeping Odessa open.

“The record of Odessa College speaks for itself,” he said. “In recent years, Odessa College has experienced unprecedented growth in terms of enrollment. Since 2007, enrollment has increased by 21.93 percent and contact hours have increased by 18.26 percent. Additionally, services to students, service to the community, as well as campus programs and facilities continue to be enhanced.”

Brazosport College is also making its case. A fact sheet released by the college notes that it is one of only three community colleges in Texas with the authority to offer baccalaureate degrees of applied sciences. Since 2005, when the first upper division students were admitted, 64 graduates have received a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Management, and all of the graduates are employed and are advancing in their careers, the college said.

The fact sheet also noted that the college enjoys strong community support. In 2007, voters, by a 68 percent margin, approved issuing $70 million in bonds to develop a science and technology corridor on campus to support the pipeline for students in science, technology, engineering and math fields. One new facility opened this past year, three are currently under construction, and one is in the design phase.

In the meantime, college officials have been busy assuring students, parents and supporters of the college that for now it is business as usual.

“We are confident that Odessa College will receive its fair share of state higher education funding when the budget process is completed this spring,” Williams said. “This is an ongoing process. The college will continue to work closely with our legislators and allow the political process to work itself out. We feel strongly that Odessa College will continue to serve our students and our community very well and long into the future.”

The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Jim Pitts, a Republican, told the Associated Press that no area of the budget will be immune from cuts.

“There are no sacred cows for this next biennium for our introduced bill,” Pitts said. “So many people said, ‘You cannot cut education.’ You can’t not cut education. We will be cutting every article within our budget. We will be cutting health and human services, we will be cutting education and we’ll be cutting our own budget in the Legislature.”

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Q:  Do you think all state services should be cut equally in a budget crisis?
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On The Horizon