Critics Blast Approach to Community Colleges in House Bill 1

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, lays out House Bill 1.
State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, lays out House Bill 1.

Among the most controversial issues in House Bill 1, the base budget, is its denial of state funding to four community colleges: Odessa College, Brazosport College, Ranger College and Frank Phillips College. While the bill does not represent a final decision, critics say presenting the proposed budget executions this way is as dangerous as the methodology behind the decision is misleading.

State Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, says House Appropriations Chairman Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, did the "honorable" thing on Tuesday by calling with advance notice that the community college in Bonnen's district, Brazosport College, would be one of the four not receiving funding in the proposed legislation. Bonnen appreciated the call, but still calls the approach "terribly irresponsible."

Bonnen describes Brazosport College as "the hub and center" of his district — one that local industry relies on for job training and that community members go to for education and cultural pursuits. "The thought of losing an institution like that is kind of debilitating," he says. Though he recognizes that the base budget is "nowhere near" how the final budget will look, Bonnen says that even suggesting a college might be closed is "significant" and even "disastrous." Students will begin looking to transfer, and others might decide to not bother enrolling.

"It creates a high degree of uncertainty," he says. "As policymakers, we'd better be damned sure it's something we're going to do if we create that uncertainty."  And Bonnen feels strongly that the school will, ultimately get that funding once his arguments have been made.

One of the central arguments made by critics like Bonnen is that the methodology used to determine which schools to close was badly flawed. The four community colleges were chosen based on a drop in "contact hours," which are — like semester credit hours at universities — the base unit of measure in the state formula to determine funding for community college, when comparing data from 20 years ago to today.

"The problem with contact hours is they fluctuate," says Steve Johnson, associate vice president of external relations at the Texas Association of Community Colleges. "It's not like enrollment growth that can continue. You may be increasing the number of students and reducing contact hours."

That is, if you have a semester with a lot of part-time students. Johnson says the opposite is also true: Even with an overall reduction in students, if a large share are full time, it could produce an increase in contact hours. 

The numbers used for the the House's proposed budget were based on the fall of 2010. The contact hour totals for the current semester won't be certified until March. At that point, Bonnen says he anticipates Brazosport will show a significant increase because the school currently has the highest student population in its four decades of existence.

But even if an arguably more stable measure like enrollment had been used, the TACC's Johnson questions the approach. "Why is that the starting point?" he says. "It should be that if you think there's a problem with those institutions and something like contact hour growth, then we have that discussion. You don't begin by zeroing them out because of the message that sends to students, the community, and all the rest."

State Rep. Tryon Lewis, R-Odessa, says it is neither a realistic nor sensible basis on which to make cuts. "It was not quality of instruction, not general mission, not how well they’re doing their job. It was purely percentage growth," he says, warning that such methodology favors fast-growing urban communities that don't need community colleges to attract industry as much as rural districts. And Odessa College, which Lewis attended in his younger years, is growing — voters recently passed a nearly $70 million bond issue to build more facilities. "This is what happens when you have somebody just using statistics," Lewis says, "and not looking at the overall institutions." 

This is only the tip of the iceberg. The TACC calculates the total cut to community colleges in HB 1 to be $767 million. That number is the total of $142 million in cuts from the last budget cycle, $342 million in unfunded student enrollment growth, and a $283 million reduction in their employee group health insurance. "This budget makes it clear that there is no longer a state policy when it comes to community colleges," says TACC chair and El Paso Community College president Richard Rhodes. "If a college grows and educates more students, the state does not live up to its commitment by funding 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."

Bonnen says the realization that the solution to the state's budgeting woes could include eliminating his local community college does not cause him to look upon revenue-increasing options like tax hikes any more favorably. He says it's his job to make the case that no responsible budget eliminates Brazosport College, and he hopes that even the architects of HB 1 will come around. Similarly, Lewis is confident that all four colleges will ultimately receive funding.

"There's no joy in this budget for anybody," Bonnen says. "As frustrated and unhappy as I may be to see Brazosport College not funded, I can assure you Chairman Pitts and others involved in this baseline budget are as troubled as I am."

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