Lee College President Dennis Brown and Board Chairman Mark Hall, in a letter to the community, envision a future campus in Mont Belvieu or south Liberty County to serve the growing population of that area as Greater Houston continues to expand eastward, squarely into the state-designated area the college serves.
“With the Main Campus in Baytown, our McNair Center up on Interstate 10, and the Lee College Education Center in South Liberty County, Mont Belvieu or possibly further north will be the ideal sites for a Lee College presence,” the letter says.
A strategy for making that future a reality was unveiled in the Nov. 21 Board of Regents meeting when the college district annexed about 36 acres of property on FM 565 in Mont Belvieu, down the road from City Hall.
The annexation was done using a seldom-used provision in Texas law that allows a private landowner to petition to be incorporated into a junior college district if the land is located in that college’s service area.
The owners of the plot that was annexed are heirs of Theo Wilburn, whose 3,000-acre rice farm included most of modern-day Mont Belvieu, Hall said.
In a historical tie-in, Wilburn was instrumental in the location and construction of the Lee College Main Campus in the 1950s, Hall said.
Hall said in an interview that massive new housing developments either announced or in the planning stages around Dayton and Mont Belvieu promise to bring in as many people in the next 25 to 30 years as live in Baytown today.
The owner of the property is in talks with the City of Mont Belvieu about a master-planned community that includes the annexed property, Hall said.
“We’re being responsible,” he said. “We have to look out for the future growth not only of Mont Belvieu, but there’s a much larger future growth going on south of Dayton.”
Hall said that Lee College representatives met with the Mont Belvieu city manager in June and discussed their annexation plans.
Following the annexation this week, City Manager Nathan Watkins said in a statement, “Lee College’s efforts to annex property within Mont Belvieu’s city limits without the full support of the City Council, our residents, and the Barbers Hill Independent School District is indicative of their intentions.
“This is not the action you take when you desire to build a long-term partnership with a community. This move against our city only sets a tone of distrust.
“To the City’s leadership, this underscores that Lee College’s interest in our area is purely financial and has nothing to do with ‘meeting community college education needs.’”
Hall emphasized that K-12 education and higher education have different structures in Texas, and that Lee College has a legal obligation to meet the higher education needs of the students in its assigned service area.
Under current law, community colleges have a taxing district, which is represented on their respective boards. Beyond that, they have a designated service area for which they have responsibilities, but that do not pay taxes.
The Texas House Higher Education Committee is reviewing taxing districts and service areas of community colleges as it prepares for its next session in 2021.
Students in the taxing district pay a lower in-district tuition rate than those outside the taxing district.
Hall said, though, that the extra out-of-district tuition only covers about a third of the cost of educating out-of-district students, meaning that Lee College District taxpayers spend about 9-10 million dollars a year subsidizing out-of-district students.
However, raising out-of-district tuition higher would make it prohibitively expensive for many students, including those from less affluent outlying districts.
“We’re trying to look 25-50 years ahead of time and be prepared for the growth, which is what we’re charged with doing,” he said.