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Community Colleges Worry About Texas Budget

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AUSTIN (AP) - Texas community colleges have been experiencing a historic growth spurt but might be forced to increase class sizes and lay off employees without additional state funding, some school leaders said.

Hundreds of thousands of students have flooded into community colleges since the middle of the last decade, attracted by low tuition and diverse course offerings, from welding to computer science and engineering.

Although overall enrollment at community colleges is lower than the previous semester, administrators say state assistance has failed to keep pace with years of steady growth. The 2011 budget did not include cuts for community colleges, but spending remained flat and did not cover a 20 percent increase in enrollment during the previous two years, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported.

Current draft budget recommendations would reduce community college funding by 5 to 6 percent over the next two years, according to officials at the Texas Association of Community Colleges.

“What we’ve been facing is jokingly what I would call the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome: We can’t get any respect,” said Bill Holda, the association’s board chairman and Kilgore College president.

Holda said the state’s 50 community colleges, with more than 725,000 students, constitute more than half the total enrollment in higher education but “have not had the prestige” of better-funded four-year universities, many with big budgets and nationally recognized research and athletic programs.

However, many state lawmakers are among the community colleges’ legions of defenders. They say the schools play a vital role in educating returning veterans and molding the state’s workforce.

A member of the Senate Finance Committee, state Sen. Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said he doesn’t think community colleges will face a budget cut and might get an increase. Lawmakers have a surplus this year, but they also face a multibillion-dollar hole in Medicaid and possible new public education spending.

Community college officials are asking for $1.9 billion for the biennium, which is $320 million above the recommendation in the draft budget and $232 million more than the current biennium. The proposal includes $196 million to fund at least a third of the growth that was unfunded by the 2011 Legislature.

The colleges also hope to at least partly offset the reductions in 2011, when state cut $130 million for employee health benefits, a 38 percent decrease, and imposed a $98 million reduction in its coverage of retirement benefits, a 48 percent cut.

Kilgore College was forced to cut 56 employees after the state reduced its support for insurance and health benefits, Holda said.

A reduction in state funding this year could force Tarrant County College to increase class sizes, reduce adjunct professors and defer maintenance at some of its older campuses, said TCC Chancellor Erma Johnson Hadley.

Ranger College, which was briefly targeted for closure during the 2011 legislative session, has increased enrollment by about 10 percent. College President Bill Campion said he hopes talk of a decrease in state funding is “just a scare tactic.”

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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