Officials at Lee College were blindsided by Barbers Hill ISD’s latest attempt to establish a competing community college.
College officials again pledged to fight the school district’s attempt to allow it to basically secede from Lee’s service district.
“I am incensed, and that is a polite word, that we are having to address an issue which should not be,” Dr. Dennis Brown, Lee College president, said. “Point blank, there is not one thing that either the Barbers Hill superintendent or the community, students, residents have ever asked of Lee College that we have not been able to assist them with. Not one. If we couldn’t provide what is being requested, then I understand the motive. But there is no motive.”
On the final day that legislation could be filed this year, companion bills were filed that Lee College officials say would negatively impact the institution and other community colleges in Texas.
The bills are House Bill 3835, filed by Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, and Senate Bill 2344, filed by Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, who is the chairman of the Higher Education Committee. Both bills have been referred to Higher Education Committees and hearings dates have not been set.
If signed into law, the bills would open the door for any community college to annex, either by election or contract, another community college’s non-taxing service area. In this case, it would be Lone Star College annexing Barbers Hill ISD from the middle of Lee College’s 17 school district service area and taking its booming tax value.
The current assessed value of Barbers Hill is $10 billion, but because of existing industrial tax agreements, the value will be a minimum of $16 billion by 2022.
This year marks the third consecutive legislative session that Barbers Hill has had bills filed on its behalf seeking its own
community college. In both previous sessions, bills sought to reduce the population threshold established in the Education Code that says the state can allow school districts to create a junior
college. Those bills died before getting a vote.
“Now, we are dealing with a whole different story and have someone who is complicit with BHISD - Lone Star College,” Brown said. “They have stated that they will partner with them.”
Barbers Hill ISD superintendent Dr. Greg Poole said the district fully supports the legislation and plans on testifying in Austin on behalf of the bills soon.
“We have consistently sought for our voters to receive community college ‘full service’ at minimal or no cost to the taxpayer, if the voters choose to do so,” Poole said. “ This includes the need for a physical presence in our district. It is a safety concern with unprecedented increases in traffic in the Baytown area.
Poole said “full service” includes lower in-district tuition, a building and all of the benefits that come from being in a taxing jurisdiction.
Lee College regents counter that facilities, infrastructure and staffing are dependent upon the state defined service area, and a loss of a school district and property value would result in dire consequences for the college and set a bad precedent for the state.
“These bills would impact not just our area, but would begin the process of allowing larger community colleges to go outside 60 miles of their services area and annex desirable districts, and then hopscotch another 60 miles and begin a process of jumping around the state. This would destabilize the community college system in Texas, not just us. It would destabilize them financially and potentially have an impact on student count,” Regent Mark Hall said.
Hall said the bills, if passed, would impact them when it came to selling bonds and speaking to lenders.
“When we talk to a lender, we are talking to them about a certain service and student count and growth. That is our asset,” Hall said. “We are doing things in order to service those students and investing money to do it, and the taxpayers of Goose Creek are on the hook for that money. But that money is being spent to provide a service across the district. Any disruption to that service area potentially leaves our investment – that is Lee College taxpayers’ investment – stranded.”
Hall said Lone Star College has not been interested in working with other districts adjacent to them although a couple had expressed an interest in the college. “But when BHISD does with their huge industrial tax base, they jumped at the chance and come alongside them to get this legislation passed,” Hall said.
Lee College officials are also frustrated with BHISD saying they – including Regent Chair Pete Alfaro, Regent Dr. Keith Coburn, Regent Gilbert Santana and Hall - have written a letter to the BHISD board asking what exactly their intentions are, but have received no response.
“They have never consulted us they were going to the Legislature, and never warned us,” Hall said. “And they have never reached out to us, and we have reached out to them repeatedly.”
Poole said the Barbers Hill school board would welcome a dialogue on specifics of what Lee College can offer the community and students “as long as Lee College withdraws all opposition to the legislation giving our taxpayers possible choice.”
Lee College does plan to oppose the bills as it has previous legislative efforts by Barbers Hill.
Santana said regents did receive a response from the Lone Star College board.
“They made us aware that three of our school districts that we service have approached them for service, and they sent two of them back to us.” Santana said. “The two they sent back – Huffman and Crosby districts - didn’t have any value to them. But, the one they didn’t send back – Barbers Hill ISD - is the one they are interested in. That would allow them to cherry-pick the wealthy districts.”
Brown said in 2017, he was invited by BH Superintendent Dr. Greg Poole to travel to Amarillo to consider a branch campus maintenance tax, which would allow a building to be built in BHISD for a 5-cent tax.
“If Barbers Hill wanted a building there, there is a special provision where we could make an arrangement, and put a building there, but they wouldn’t be a full participating member of the taxing district,” Brown said.
However, Brown said Poole later rejected the idea, claiming BHISD would have to lower its property taxes by the same amount they increase the branch campus tax.
Santana said there are documented records showing Brown reported to the board about his meeting with Poole over the 5-cent branch maintenance tax. In January 2018, Brown reported to the board about his meeting with Poole on this issue. At the time, Brown said Poole was “looking for a direction that we could move forward, different than what has happened in the last two legislative sessions.”
Poole said the branch campus possibility was initiated in good faith by the Barbers Hill school district as an attempt to achieve what has been its consistent goal throughout this process.
“The initiative was not well-received by our Barbers Hill board, because of a lack of local governance over the tax monies. Furthermore, this was at a time that Lee College had significant financial challenges which caused our Board concern,” Poole said.
The deadline for Texas House committees to report on bills is May 6. The deadline for Texas Senate bills to be reported by House Committees is May 18. If neither of the filed bills are reported by these deadlines, they are considered dead.
Brown said they would reach out to the Texas Association of Community Colleges and request other institutions to provide information to their respective representatives and senators to oppose the bills.
“The response I received was very impressive,” Brown said. “They understand it is Lee College today, and possibly them tomorrow.”