After lawmakers failed to approve billions for capital projects across Texas’ higher education institutions, Tarleton State University found another way to secure a majority of the funds needed for its second building in Fort Worth.
While plans are made for the Fort Worth campus’ growth, other needs — like a renovation for a Stephenville building from the 1950s — continue to go unmet without funds that need lawmakers’ approval.
“We have to put things on the back burner and wait for the next legislative session,” said Kyle McGregor, vice president of Tarleton’s Division of Institutional Advancement. “We’re seen as a regional university and don’t have large donor bases, don’t have large capital budgets. So what we would typically do is rely on the legislature for new infrastructure, new buildings.”
But in a session focused on school finance and property tax reform, packages that would have authorized $3.8 billion in tuition revenue bonds for capital projects failed to pass. Universities have seen a sporadic flow of funds from such packages, with the most recent one approved in 2015, and before that, 2006.
Tarrant County lawmakers have pledged to help secure funds when the legislature reconvenes in 2021.
“I fully supported tuition revenue bonds this past session and I will support them again,” said Rep. Charlie Geren, R-Fort Worth.
Fort Worth campus grows
Tarleton State University celebrated the opening of its Fort Worth campus along the Chisholm Trail Parkway last month. And it may start construction on its second building as soon as 2021, thanks to $63 million that will cover about 90% of the building’s costs.
The funds, approved last month by the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents as part of the system’s $2.9 billion capital plan, will come from the Permanent University Fund, known as PUF.
Created by the Texas Constitution in 1876, the fund consists of an endowment of 2.1 million acres in North and West Texas whose investments had a market value of $22.8 billion as of July, according to the fund’s website. The University of Texas system receives two-thirds of the fund’s benefits, while the Texas A&M System — which Tarleton is a part of — receives one-third.
The remaining $7 million needed for the second Fort Worth building is expected to come from private donations through a fundraising campaign, McGregor said.
The second Fort Worth building is expected to house two School of Kinesiology labs, in addition to College of Education child development and well-being centers that will give students studying to be teachers experience working with pre-kindergarten children and elementary children in after-school programs.
“One of the hopes that we have for the campus is that we align very closely with many of the initiatives that Mayor (Betsy) Price has in Fort Worth as well as the chamber,” McGregor said of the building’s focus on early childhood education.
PUF dollars will also go toward infrastructure needs on the growing campus, such as sidewalks and roads, and the private donations will be used to fund areas state funds can’t go toward, like recreation areas, McGregor said.
And the funds will be essential for a campus that “will grow like a weed” as A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp put it.
“Any project that would that would reach out over $10 million is considered to be a large capital outlay for Tarleton,” McGregor said. “Now that might not be true for other universities that are larger, but for us that would be a fairly large number.”
Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, whose bill that would have authorized tuition revenue bonds for higher ed projects failed to gain traction in the Senate, applauded the funds for Tarleton.
“I congratulate Tarleton Fort Worth on securing funding for their second building. The Texas A&M System should be commended for allocating PUF funding for this project,” Turner said in a statement. “Both Texas A&M and the University of Texas Systems have access to the Permanent University Fund — an advantage that enables them to fund needed construction projects.”
Needs go unmet
While Geren said he’s glad Tarleton’s footprint is expanding in Tarrant County and providing more affordable education opportunities, he knows that other buildings need attention, too.
“They’ve got a building that needs repairs in Stephenville. They were damaged by tornadoes a couple years ago, and they’ve still got some work to do over there to get all those buildings back to where they were or where they need to be,” Geren said.
In the university’s agricultural building in Stephenville, cramped offices house multiple faculty members and graduate students, McGregor said.
“One’s even in a closet,” McGregor said. “It’s an old building. It’s outdated. It has one wet lab in it when much of your modern agricultural-science-based practices need multiple labs. And the building is very small.”
But the 70-year-old building didn’t receive the $72 million the university requested from lawmakers this past session. McGregor said Tarleton is currently going through the process to set funding priorities for the legislature’s consideration in 2021.
And Tarleton isn’t the only one with infrastructure needs going unmet.
Paul Corliss, a University of North Texas System spokesman, said the system has not found funding elsewhere for projects it requested tuition revenue bonds for, like $126 million for the construction of a UNT science and technology research building or $115.5 million for construction of an academic building at the UNT Health Science Center at Fort Worth.
Joe Carpenter, a spokesman for the University of Texas at Arlington, previously said in July that the school was looking at options. UTA had requested $76 million in Turner’s bill for a College of Nursing and Health Innovation and School of Social Work building, and an additional $59 million for Life Science building renovations.
In a 2018 legislative appropriations request, UTA described the current School of Social Work buildings from 1922 as having “egress code deficiencies, is impractical to add sprinkler system due to the very extensive presence of asbestos (non-friable) throughout the building, and infrastructure systems are well beyond useful life and are in constant need of repair.”
UTA President Vistasp Karbhari previously told the school’s student newspaper, The Shorthorn, that the university planned to apply for PUF funds. Carpenter declined to comment on whether funds were ever requested.
Growing pains are likely to continue for North Texas universities. From 2017-2018, the Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area added more residents than any other metropolitan area in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Tarleton is hoping to capture some of that growth, and plans for its Fort Worth campus to serve 9,000 students by 2030. But it will need to expand at a steady pace to keep up.
“At one point in time, we had over $400 million of active construction going on,” McGregor said. “We saw a period of quick expansion in our student numbers, and we’re trying to match that to keep up with that growth.”