Education

Tarrant County College wants voters to approve $825 million. Here’s what students get

Aging buildings, small classrooms and old technology are making Tarrant County College less accessible, but a $825 million bond proposal could change that.

From multiple campuses to online courses to tuition lower than other schools, the school is meant to provide high-quality education to anyone in the Fort Worth area. But as the college’s five campuses age, it’s becoming harder to accommodate more students, school officials said.

Take the college’s Northwest campus off Marine Creek Parkway. One of the older campuses in the system, its main building was first constructed in the mid-1970s — and it feels like it, said Janice Smith, Dean of Mathematics and Sciences.

“We have a sense of family here,” she said. “When you see all this scaffolding around the building when you walk in, it’s hard to really feel welcome.”

The stabilizers went up in 2016 after a severe storm ripped bricks off the outside of the building.

Smith, who started working at the campus in 1989, said few upgrades have been made over the years. Small remodeling projects mostly focused on making the building accessible to people with disabilities, as required by law. The building by Marine Creek Lake has been overcrowded basically since it opened, Smith said.

To address these needs, and dozens of other improvements, TCC is asking voters to support a $825 million bond on Nov. 5. It’s the first time in 25 years the school has asked voters for money, and it’s desperately needed, said Chancellor Eugene Giovannini.

Since the last bond election, enrollment has increased by almost 45,000 students to a little more than 99,500 in 2018. Almost 1 in 20 Tarrant County residents take TCC classes. Campuses train nurses, firefighters, computer programmers and engineers. Giovannini expects enrollment to continue ballooning as the Metroplex grows, and said the school must evolve to meet the demand.

The projects will be spread across the district, and correspond to TCC’s guiding principles, Giovannini said. They include providing job-training classrooms, greater resources through improved technology, enriching student experiences, improving work space and expanding programs offered to high school students.

“These are new ways in which to do business, to respond to the classroom needs of today and the needs of the student today,” he said.

The Northwest Campus will see the most changes.

Its main building will be demolished — along with the Marine Creek High School building — and replaced with new facilities. Most of the other buildings will be renovated. Students will have a new union, new classrooms and new work spaces by 2024.

Projects at the Northwest Campus will cost about $305 million total, but it’s needed, Smith said. The campus was designed for about 6,000 students, but had a fall enrollment of more than 9,000.

She described outdated labs that are no longer flexible enough to accommodate growing classes and desks too small to fit more than a standard size sheet of paper. In some cases, college classrooms are shared with high school classes.

Most rooms are not comfortable for the modern student, who may need an interpreter or service animal, she said.

Students are evolving. They’re coming from high schools with high tech equipment and atmospheres built around active and group learning, she said.

“We need to adapt to them,” Smith said.

At the Southeast Campus, about $125 million will be spent by roughly 2025 to expand the Arlington school, which Giovannini called “crammed.” More than 12,000 students attend classes at a campus designed for about 5,000.

Two new buildings will replace a series of modular classrooms, and the school will expand parking. Aging, inflexible classrooms will be replaced with modern labs with more space.

Across all campuses, the school plans to invest $202 million in lighting, heating and water upgrades. The Northeast campus will see $65 million in improvements, including a flood mitigation project.

Campuses will also get expanded libraries and student commons, improved outdoor space and expanded training facilities totaling about $190 million.

“Libraries are no longer full of books. Those are makerspaces and learning commons with supplemental instruction,” Giovannini said. “The student engagement experience is different now.”

All of this will be done without creating new taxes for Tarrant County residents — the bond will be funded from existing tax revenue. The college’s 2020 budget did not include a tax rate increase.

Many small improvements and ongoing maintenance have been paid for with cash the college already has, said Susan Alanis, the school’s chief operating officer. If voters approve the bond, it can divert that money to paying off debt, she said.

As the administrative offices move to the college’s Trinity River campus, TCC hopes to sell the May Owen Center at 1500 Houston Street. The building no longer fits the school’s needs and is inefficient to operate, but the location is a prime spot near the Fort Worth Convention Center. The school owns other downtown parcels, including the former TXU plant along the river.

Giovannini wouldn’t say if TCC planned to sell off more downtown property, but he said the school is in the early stages of exploring possibilities.

If voters don’t agree to the $825 million in bonds, he said the school could take on debt or ask the voters again on a new ballot. The school doesn’t charge student fees — not even for parking — and Giovannini said he would like to keep it that way.

“Plan B is in the heads, not on paper,” he said. “Any other options will take longer and likely cost more.”

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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