McAllen, RGV – Dr. Shirley Reed, president of South Texas College, says an abandoned farmers market is being foist upon her college for political reasons.

Reed made her comments in testimony at a Senate committee hearing that was considering House Bill 382, authored by state Rep. Terry Canales. The Edinburg Democrat wants STC to commit more resources to the Delta area.

Dr. Shirley Reed
Dr. Shirley Reed

Reed does not mention the farmers market by name but observers believe she is referring to the Mercado Delta, the brainchild of U.S. Rep. Rubén Hinojosa. The Mercado Delta was built with a $2.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce and a $500,000 grant from Hidalgo County’s Urban County Program. The market was a commercial flop and now sits abandoned.

Testifying on HB 382 at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, Reed said that while there is no fiscal impact to the state with Canales’ legislation, there certainly is an impact on local taxpayers.

“We were offered an abandoned farmers market that was an EDA property and this became a very fierce political football in our region. The whole genesis for creating a campus in the Delta was to force us to occupy that farmers market,” Reed testified, as a resource witness to Canales’ bill.

Reed said STC is already serving the Delta area. “We understand their needs. We are very sensitive. Rep. Canales has eloquently explained their circumstances, but what hasn’t been shared is we operate three early college high schools in that region. We have 300 students enrolled pursuing their two year associate degree. We are doing this tuition-free for those students. There are warm bodies and faculty there.”

Reed said STC provides transportation to its Mid-Valley campus in Weslaco. It has about 3,900 students. “It’s a full comprehensive campus and we feel that better serves the students of the Delta. If you only have 500 students, it’s very difficult to offer comprehensive degrees, programs, or even training. We have a very close relationship with the school district. We work in partnership with them. We share facilities. There is no issue with the relationship between us and school district. However politics have got into the middle of this issue,” Reed testified.

The Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations, which is chaired by state Sen. Eddie Lucio, received written testimony against HB 382 from the South Texas College Board of Trustees and the Texas Association of Community Colleges.

Roberto Zarate
Roberto Zarate

The letter from the Texas Association of Community Colleges was co-written by Roberto Zarate, legislative committee chair of the Community College Association of Texas and member of the board of trustees of Alamo College, and Dr. Johnette McKown, legislative committee chair for the Texas Association of Community Colleges and president of McLennan Community College. Here is the letter:

Dear Senator Lucio,

We understand that HB 382 by Representative Canales has been referred to your committee. The bill would require the Board of Trustees at South Texas College to create an extension facility in Edcouch or Elsa. We write you with serious concerns over this bill and the precedent it would set.

Having the Legislature direct where a community college facility is to be located usurps the powers of the locally elected Board of Trustees. It is particularly troubling to have the state require creation of a particular facility, because community colleges receive no state funds for facilities, and are prohibited from using state funds for facilities. Even if a facility is given to the college, the long- term costs or retrofit and maintenance would have to be borne by the college. This would set a negative precedent and erode the local control of community college boards spelled out in state statute. Education Code 51.352(a) states that a community college board:

“Is expected to preserve institutional independence and to defend its right to manage its own affairs through its chosen administrators and employees.”

HB 382 would clearly interfere with the rights of the South Texas College Board to preserve its independence. We ask that you please take our concerns into your deliberations on this bill.

Thank you for all you do for our institutions and the State of Texas.

The STC board of trustees shares the concerns of the Texas Association of Community Colleges. The STC board comprises Roy De León as chairman, Alejo Salinas, Jr., as vice-chair, Paul R. Rodriguez, as secretary, and members Rose Benavidez, Graciela Farias, Gary Gurwitz, and Jesse Villarreal. De León represents the cities of Edcouch, Elsa and La Villa on the STC board. Here is the STC board’s letter:

Dear Committee:

The Board of Trustees of South Texas College requests that careful deliberation be provided before action on HB 382, as recently passed by the House and en route to the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations.

This bill requires that South Texas College establish an “extension facility” within the municipalities of Edcouch or Elsa that are within an area locally known as the Delta Region.

The precedent of the State Legislature dictating campus locations and thereby usurping the responsibility of locally elected governing boards is of grave concern to us. The consequences extend well beyond the misrepresentation  of this bill as a “local matter.” Leasing a store front or occupying an abandoned farmer’s market are not viable options. Yes, they are politically expedient, but not appropriate to serve the long-term educational needs of Delta residents.

As elected Trustees for South Texas College, we have substantial concerns with this bill. Establishing a campus in the Delta Region would require serious deliberation and significant local taxpayer investment. Establishment of a college campus or extension facility necessitates an adequate student population to make such an endeavor fiscally feasible, and to provide an appropriate selection of academic and technical programs.

The Delta Region of Hidalgo County is served by South Texas College and is part of the College’staxing district. South Texas College’s Mid Valley Campus in Weslaco was established to serve the Delta Region and is located  11 miles away with convenient access onpaved roads. The local taxpayers have invested $37 million in the initial development of this campus and will be investing an additional $34 million from a local voter approved bond issue to continue expansion of the facilities. The campus serves approximately 3,900 students and can accommodate the needs of the Delta residents.

Currently, South Texas College provides tuition free dual enrollment to approximately 300 students in the area and serves as the higher education partner for three early college high schools, including Edcouch-Elsa ISD. A free bus service runs from the Delta Region to Weslaco and to the three major campuses in McAllen to facilitate access and reduce transportation costs for students.

The adversity from poverty and unemployment is not unique to the Delta Region. Unfortunately, these difficult economic circumstances are all too common throughout Hidalgo and Starr counties in South Texas. The College has a long standing commitment to serve the residents of the Delta Region and continues to provide expanded opportunities for their access to South Texas College.

As publicly elected officials and fiscal stewards of a tax supported public institution, the Board of Trustees of South Texas College must give serious and deliberate consideration to any proposed new campus and the appropriate process for selecting a location that will serve a population base that is viable enough to support the new campus.

In closing, we respectfully request that you give serious consideration to our concerns regarding HB 382 and the precedent it will establish if passed.

In addition, STC board member Gurwitz submitted his own written letter to the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Relations. Here it is:

My name is Gary Gurwitz and I appreciate the opportunity to testify. I have been a Trustee of South Texas College since its inception in 1993 and have been a part of its growth from less than 1,000 students to more than 30,000 students.

I oppose HB 382, with all due respect to Senator Lucio, who has been a staunch supporter of the College and personal friend. The effect of HB 382 is broader than local and has the potential unintended adverse consequence of changing important aspects of local governance of school districts and community colleges.

The issue is not whether Edcouch or Elsa needs an “extension facility” – they do not. They are approximately ten miles north of Weslaco, connected by a U.S. highway, with free bus transportation to our Weslaco campus and to all of our other campuses in Hidalgo County. From the beginning, our master plan designated Weslaco as the most convenient and efficient location for a campus to serve eastern Hidalgo County, including Edcouch/Elsa (the “Delta”), Mercedes, Pharr, San Juan, Alamo and Donna.

Gary Gurwitz
Gary Gurwitz

We have invested approximately $35 million in the campus and are in the process of spending an additional $34 million, as per our master plan. We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on our recent master plan which proposes enhancing our present campuses and not expanding construction to other localities.

The issue is whether the legislature should decide where, when and the extent to which a public school district or community college “shall establish and open an extension facility,” rather than leave that decision to the local trustees. It can and may have become a campaign promise, “Elect me to the legislature and I will get an elementary school (or community college) facility established and maintained in your neighborhood.” The College already has received a number of calls from other communities, some within the district of the Representative sponsoring HB 382, claiming they have a larger population, more students, and pay more taxes that the Delta. Which one or more of those communities may be the subject of proposed legislation in the next session?

Senator Lucio has complimented the performance of our Board many times. South Texas College, its administrators and trustees have won state and national awards. The board’s reputation for integrity and good governance is unquestioned. Our fiscal management is outstanding and award winning. The decision of when, where and to what extent South Texas College should “establish and operate an extension facility” should remain with the local board of trustees. To the extent the Legislation involves itself in that decision it puts the public schools and community college governance system in jeopardy and, with all due respect, is an unnecessary intrusion into local governance matters.

We know what we are doing – please let us do our jobs.

Please give serious consideration to the unintended consequences and adverse precedent that HB 382 will create, if passed.