In an article titled “Lee College annexes 36 acres in Mont Belvieu,” appearing in the Nov. 24 edition of The Baytown Sun, the first sentence characterized this action as an “ongoing dispute between the Lee College District and Barbers Hill ISD.”
Just to clarify, there is no dispute regarding Lee College’s need to meet its state mandated requirement that it offer higher educational opportunities to communities served by 17 school systems, which includes Barbers Hill ISD.
Similar to public school districts, the State of Texas has divided up the state into what are known as “service areas.” The difference between public schools and community colleges is that all of a school district’s service area is also its taxing area.
For public community colleges, only those communities that have voted themselves into the college’s taxing districts are assessed taxes. Nevertheless, community colleges are required to serve all communities within their service area. To account for the lack of revenues from students enrolling from areas outside the taxing district, a higher tuition is charged.
The action taken on Nov. 21 by the Lee College Board of Regents is designed to further fulfill its responsibility to serve residents within its state defined service area. Our service area perfectly matches the projected population growth for this region of Southeast Texas. That growth from Baytown will be North and East. This first step positions the College to further annex land and eventually purchase some of that land for building a new Lee College campus.
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 ideal sites for a Lee College presence. Just as it is not the purview of Lee College to start a K-12 charter school in Mont Belvieu or South of the city, neither is it the purview of Barbers Hill ISD to start a community college in Lee College’s service area. Of the over 1,100 public school districts in Texas, not one operates a community college.
If you have been following the actions of Barbers Hill ISD over the past three Legislative sessions, 2015, 2017 and 2019, in the first two sessions (2015 and 2017), Barbers Hill had legislation filed that would allow them to operate their own community college.
Since the Legislature created community college service areas, they declined to allow the law to be changed, simply referring back to state approved service areas, and, in our case, that area includes residents served within the boundaries of Barbers Hill ISD. In the past session, 2019, Barbers Hill took a different approach by partnering with Lone Star College to have legislation passed that would have allowed Lone Star College to encroach on Lee College’s service area.
We were confused about this legislation for three reasons.
First, Lone Star College is so large, has over $200 billion in property value, and is quite a distance from Mont Belvieu, that it did not make sense for them to be interested.
Second, Lone Star College would, by state and regional accreditation requirements, have to operate the campus.
Third, Superintendent Greg Poole noted in the November 24 article, that Lee College “needs to be serious about our community.” That is exactly what the annexation is all about.
In August, 2019 the Lee College Board of Regents reduced the tax rate by two cents. It is possible that future tax rate reductions could be approved. The College’s 23 cent tax rate is quite a bit smaller than Barbers Hill ISDs $1.26 rate. Also, residents paying taxes to Lee College also pay in-district tuition, which is lower than the out of district tuition paid by non-taxpayers.
As more land is annexed and brought into the Lee College taxing district, residents in these areas will be able to vote for individuals to serve on the Lee College Board of Regents. This representation will be invaluable as the College continues to develop its presence and its service area North and East of Baytown. Existing homeowners cannot be brought into the Lee College taxing district without an affirmative vote of the residents. The property currently being annexed by Lee College is undeveloped land.
Just as Barbers Hill ISD moves its district forward in its state defined service area, so too is Lee College. There is nothing deceptive about our actions. Such actions occur in community college districts throughout the state.
These actions are not charades, but real movement in creating a physical Lee College presence in the Mont Belvieu area. Lee College continues to reach out to Barbers Hill ISD to be a partner in bringing higher education opportunities to the Mont Belvieu area through a physical presence. We look forward to a productive relationship.
Dr. Dennis Brown is president of Lee College and Mark Hall is chairman of the Lee College Board of Regents.