Shirley A. Reed, founding president of South Texas College.

MCALLEN, RGV – The Legislature will be asked to clear up confusion over what continuing education community colleges can provide, if any, in Texas high schools.

Lawmakers are being asked to get involved following a disagreement between South Texas College and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board over what current statute allows for. An audit commissioned by THECB was highly critical of how STC framed its continuing education program in local high schools.

In turn, STC threatened a lawsuit. It had designed and implemented a continuing education program designed for at-risk high school students who may not finish a postsecondary education. Nearly 5,000 students participated in the program. STC waived tuition if high school teachers helped teach the continuing education program.

“It has all been resolved,” STC President Shirley A. Reed told the Rio Grande Guardian earlier this month. “It took the lawyers (to help resolve it). We even had the Attorney General get involved. We are in the process of working with (state) Senator (Juan) Hinojosa to draft legislation that will clarify the areas that we found ambiguous and confusing. It has been resolved.”

In her interview, Reed pointed out that continuing education courses are not college credit courses.

“Continuing education is for adults who may not be ready for college. We were offering some courses in high schools, particularly to students who were not ready to take college level classes. We believe helping them be prepared to go into the workforce is critical. We have backed off until all of this gets resolved and we get new legislation in place. We could not risk things. Let them sort it out. We will get new legislation that clearly says what we can do. Then we will proceed.”

Reed acknowledged that the STC leadership interpreted existing statute on continuing education differently to THECB.

“We believe that students need to decide in high school whether they want to go to a university and get an academic degree or do they prefer to go immediately to the workforce and if they want to go right into the workforce they need a skill set and not all our high schools have a wide variety of career and technology programs,” Reed said.

“That is where we can come in and offer some of those courses. That was our original goal. But, it kind of blew up. I am optimistic the legislature (will resolve things). They share our commitment. They want these students to get started on career and technical courses in high school. Not everybody can afford to go on to college. And we have so many great career programs.”

Mark Poehl, director of internal audit and compliance for THECB, presented an audit report on STC in July of this year. The findings showed students in Valley high schools receiving continuing education courses from STC even though they were not ready to enter the workforce.

“Statute uses the term continuing adult education and rule further specifies such continuing education is to prepare students for immediate employment,” Poehl said. “[Children who are] 13 and 14 years old are not immediately employable and federal court labor laws place restrictions on employing individuals under the age of 18, 16 and 14.”

Poehl also said that while formula funding rules allow for tuition to be waived for dual credit courses, it was not allowed for continuing education courses.

At the THECB meeting, Janelle Shepard, one of the members of the coordinating board, said as a taxpayer, she was concerned about double dipping for students who aren’t taking college level courses.

“I’m just going to beg to differ with you – I don’t think those are college level courses,” Shepard told Reed, Laura Sanchez, associate dean of institutional research and effectiveness at STC, and Juan Carlos Aguirre, dean of continuing professional and workforce education for STC. “It’s not English 101 [and] it’s not College Algebra. Those are not really any courses that formula funding should be used for.”

Janelle Shepard

David Teuscher, another member of the coordinating board, pointed out what STC was doing could be categorized as continuing juvenile education. He said a 41 percent dropout and failure rate means those students are not ready for college level material.

“And to be quite honest, I kind of side with where the auditors were,” Teuscher said. “I think, shame on you. You should’ve thought about this and you should’ve said we cannot possibly pull this thing over as being higher ed. It’s not higher ed, it’s secondary ed. It’s laudable, it’s good for your community, I appreciate you doing it, but this is not the intention for these funds. And you’re unique in the state right now.”

THECB later advised STC it would be deducting $2.3 million from STC.

In an interview with the Rio Grande Guardian in August, Reed cited a 2013 audit of STC where no red flags were waived about its continuing education work in high schools. Reed said STC emailed Duane Hiller, program director of THECB, asking if waiving tuition was legal. The college received a confirmation from Hiller saying yes.

“So, we expanded the program and it grew very rapidly,” Reed said. “I think the coordinating board was shocked as to how many students we were serving and shame on us for responding to the community need and doing such a good job. Shame on us.”

With the amount of success STC has achieved with dual enrollment programs and the continuing education program, Reed said the board can’t believe how well students from South Texas are doing.

“If this was in Dallas or Houston, we probably would be getting an award for what we do. But because it’s in South Texas there’s almost a condescending arrogance,” Reed said, in the August, 2016 interview.