Tarrant County College District may face higher tuition, property taxes

AUSTIN -- Increases in tuition and property taxes are among the options facing the five-campus Tarrant County College District if state contributions are cut 10 percent over the next two years, according to TCC's legislative appropriations request.

Reductions would "seriously impair the ability of TCCD to carry out its mission," officials said in a 12-page outline submitted to the Texas Legislative Budget Board. "Providing high-quality academic and workforce education programs has taken on an even greater importance than usual because of the current economic situation."

TCC is one of the five largest community college districts in the state, with an enrollment of more than 44,000 students in 2009. Enrollment increased 12 percent in fall 2009 and 16 percent in spring 2010 and is up 18 percent this semester, according to TCC officials.

State agencies, court systems, and colleges and universities have been ordered to submit contingency plans for cutting state funds by 10 percent as part of their spending proposals for the 2012-13 biennium. Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and House Speaker Joe Straus issued the directive to help lawmakers deal with a projected shortfall of at least $18 billion when they convene in January to begin writing a new biennial budget.

The TCC request echoed the somber tone expressed by most other agencies, warning of a severe impact on services. A 10 percent cut in the next biennium would follow a 5 percent emergency reduction that many agencies were forced to implement for the current 2010-11 biennium.

The TCC outline listed a number of options for adjusting to deep cuts: fewer class sections through centralized scheduling and increased class sizes; greater use of adjunct faculty; deferred maintenance; across-the-board reductions in operating expenses; a nonfaculty hiring freeze; a tuition increase; and a tax increase.

"Probably a combination of all of the above would have to be considered," Reginald Gates, a TCC vice chancellor, said Friday.

Three main revenue sources

The state's 50 community college districts get revenue from three main sources -- local property taxes, tuition, and formula-based funding from state general revenue.

The district is requesting $99.8 million from the state for 2012-13, a figure that would be reduced by $9.9 million if state assistance is cut 10 percent.

The threatened reduction would be compounded by a decline in taxable property in the college district, TCC officials said in their appropriations request.

"Valuations in Tarrant County for the first time in more than a decade fell by $5.7 billion or about 4.5 percent," the officials said.

Gates said severe budget reductions would harm one of the college system's more important missions -- offering affordable education to a broad segment of the community, including many who are seeking new skills after losing their jobs in the economic downturn.

The district's tuition, Gates said, is among the lowest in the state -- $50 per credit hour for Tarrant County residents and $73 per credit hour for outside residents.

The request for an increase in state funds, Gates said, is aimed primarily at enabling the district to maintain and build on diverse course offerings at its five campuses. "That's what makes community colleges unique -- that ability to be flexible and create training for immediate needs," he said.

Training programs for nurses and nurses' aides at the South Campus are aimed at helping the state combat a serious nursing shortage. The district also provides training in firefighting, auto mechanics, business, music, journalism and other disciplines.

Springboards to 4-year schools

The system opened in 1965 as Tarrant County Junior College and became Tarrant County College in 1999. Its newest campus, the Trinity River Campus in downtown Fort Worth, opened in fall 2009. The Trinity River East Campus is scheduled to open in 2011.

Community colleges offer two-year programs that put freshmen and sophomores on track to an associate degree. They also serve as a springboard for many students into four-year colleges or universities.

Other community colleges statewide have also registered strong growth but, like TCC, they are worried about the possibility of raising taxes or boosting tuition if the state seriously cuts funding, said Steve Johnson, spokesman for the Austin-based Texas Association of Community Colleges. "That's exactly what we're hearing from all the districts in the state," he said.

Dave Montgomery is chief of the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau. 512-476-4294