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ACC races need workforce, community and education leadership


Politics have their place, and when it comes to the trustee elections for Austin Community College, that place is usually in the back seat.

Not so this year, with partisan affiliations being bandied about in the officially nonpartisan races for four available ACC trustee seats. Not only are the 12 candidates being asked at forums about the presidential candidate preferences at local forums, several candidates have backgrounds in the partisan political machinery.

  • Sean Hassan, who owns a child care and early childhood education center and moved to Austin last year, is a former regional director of Obama for America;
  • Anthony Schoggins is former Democratic Texas Senate staffer and political consultant;
  • Julie Ann Nitsch is a Bernie 2016 organizer and current ACC student;
  • Nicole Eversmann is a Green Party activist and current student;
  • Jeremy Story doesn’t have a paid political affiliation but is an executive with a college evangelizing nonprofit and sits on several national boards, including the National Prayer Committee and the Awakening America Alliance.

Perhaps this is unavoidable in a hotly contested national political year that has focused heavily on college debt, but it is concerning development nonetheless.

With more than 41,500 students spread through 11 campuses in a service area the size of New Jersey, the college is one of the most important workforce engines in the region. Central Texas is depending on the college to educate workers in the right jobs at the right time while minimizing the burden on property taxpayers, who fund more than half of the college’s $313 million budget.

READ Q&A WITH ACC TRUSTEE CANDIDATES

According the most recent progress report from ACC and the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce, since 2010 degree, certificate and other completions rose 71 percent, surpassing the area’s projected labor force needs. The college has opened its state-of-the art Highland campus and has made good on its promises to build new facilities in the far reaches of the district. It also has dramatically expanded enrollment in its dual-credit and early-college high school programs offered in area school districts.

Some candidates have latched onto the district’s federally reported completion rates, which look abysmal when compared to other Texas community colleges (4 percent graduated in three years in the cohort that started in 2008). However, those rates only show first-time, full-time students, which in Austin are few, and more recent figures actually put that rate at 8 percent for the cohort that started in 2011. According to ACC, more than 10 percent of ACC students already have a bachelor’s degree, and 80 percent are part-time. The Austin job market is one of the strongest in the nation, which means many students either quit school or lighten their academic loads because they land jobs before they complete their programs, having picked up the needed skills in IT and other areas.

Unfortunately, the nine-member board is losing some of its strongest voices this year, with Jeffrey Richard, Allen Kaplan and current board chair Victor Villarreal stepping down. Over the years, we’ve found that balance on this particular board is critical, requiring voices from the world of business, education and the nonprofit sector. If that balance veers too much in one direction, the college can fall victim to mission creep.

The job of an ACC trustee is not a political one, which is one reason the political tenor of the forums around town have caught us by surprise. Endorsement meetings in the past few months have included the questions like, “Who are you voting for for president?”

It’s hard to think of a more irrelevant question. We’ve asked our own, of which you can find excerpts below or in full on mystatesman.com.

In our minds, ACC is currently on an upward trajectory, with ACC President and CEO Richard Rhodes committing to continuing work on the college’s completion rates through its Guided Pathways initiative and successfully negotiating innovative transfer agreements for ACC students hoping to gain admittance to the state’s four-year institutions, including the University of Texas, Texas State University and Texas A&M University.

Of particular note is the recently announced program at Texas A&M designed to produce more engineers for the state and assure professors of student preparedness to succeed in the program. Such programs are multipronged solutions to college affordability, improving student success and making sure lower-income students have access to STEM careers and credentials from the state’s top-flight four-year institutions.

We encourage the next board to take a hard look at rebalancing the load that property taxpayers disproportionately shoulder. The district has admirably committed to keeping tuition low — in fact, ACC’s tuition is among the lowest of any large community college district in the state. But with the Legislature declining to kick in its fair share (in 2001 the state paid more than 40 percent of the district’s budget; today its share is less than 20 percent), property taxpayers are now picking up nearly half the tab. The relatively low cost of classes may also be unintentionally contributing to the college’s low completion rates.

Tuition affordability is important, no doubt, but finding creative ways to balance, perhaps pursuing more paid workforce training programs like recent initiative with Samsung or other companies, might be in order.

Voters should not forget that the creation of ACC was a three-way bargain: workforce development for Central Texas, improving access to two-year and four-year degrees through high-quality and lower-cost classes, and community benefit, allowing anyone who lives in the district access to courses to improve their lives and their careers.

Voters owe it to themselves to not stop at the top of the ballot and pick the candidates best equipped to make a real difference in our quality of life and build up our Central Texas communities.



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