San Marcos Mercury | Local News from San Marcos and Hays County, Texas

June 12th, 2012
Heldenfels rips report on community colleges oversight

by REEVE HAMILTON

During the 2011 session, Texas legislators quietly added a rider to the state budget allocating up to $350,000 to hire a national consultant to develop a blueprint for a statewide administrative system for Texas community colleges.

But the blueprint, developed by the National Center for Higher Education and distributed last week, has rankled leaders at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board.

Fuming over how the leaders are characterized in the blueprint, coordinating board chairman Fred Heldenfels IV penned a letter — sent to legislative and community college leaders along with the blueprint — criticizing the report’s methodology and conclusions. Heldenfels is president and chief executive officer of San Marcos-based Heldenfels Enterprises Inc., which manufactures concrete beams and other products.

The report found that two existing entities, the coordinating board and the Texas Association of Community Colleges, a nonprofit group that advocates for the state’s colleges, could serve as a body that oversees community colleges statewide, but that neither “would be deemed acceptable” in that role.

According to the report, TACC has too strong an advocacy role for it to function properly in that position, and its leaders have not expressed much disagreement. But the coordinating board’s problem, the report says, is that community colleges simply don’t trust it to do the job — and that’s not a message everyone was ready to hear.

“Important constituents have lost faith in the agency’s ability to play the role of state system administrative body for community colleges and simultaneously fulfill its mission as the oversight agency for all postsecondary education in the state,” the report said.

In his letter, Heldenfels called this a “misplaced assertion,” which he blamed on the fact that key legislative leaders, such as Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and House Higher Education Chairman Dan Branch, R-Dallas, were not interviewed for the report, nor were leaders at the coordinating board, such as Heldenfels himself or Texas Higher Education Commissioner Raymund Paredes.

For the report, the center interviewed more than 50 individuals, including key staffers in the offices of several legislators, like Zaffirini and Branch, as well as high-ranking coordinating board officials and community college leaders throughout the state. A spokesman for NCHEMS said it stands by the report.

TACC spokesman Steve Johnson said the conclusions did not surprise him due to the push in the education community for more focus on community colleges, which play a critical role as the sector where the majority of Texas college-goers begin their journey. “I think the coordinating board is upset because they think they are doing that,” Johnson said, “but clearly the stakeholders don’t think they are.”

The report notes that some of this feeling may stem from a 2004 decision to eliminate the coordinating board’s Division of Community Colleges, whose leader served as a liaison to the community college sector and had a community college-centric resume — something the report says is lacking among the current coordinating board staff.

Heldenfels wrote that the notion that the move resulted in any loss of credibility “completely misunderstands” the purpose of the reorganization, which was designed to focus on integrating two-year and four-year institutions. He even cited a line from the report to defend the current structure: “Texas needs more, not less, cohesion across sectors in its higher education policy.”

The blueprint stops short of saying that an entirely new coordinating board should be developed for community colleges. “The existence of another state agency that would give THECB a reason to ignore community colleges is not a good idea,” it says.

Rather, it calls for the establishment of a temporary Texas Community College and Workforce Policy Center that would be organized as a state agency and fill in the current perceived gaps in statewide community college-focused administration until the coordinating board had built up enough standing to resume the responsibilities.

NCHEMS estimates that the cost of such a center would not exceed $1.5 million per year and could be covered by reallocating coordinating board staffers, partnerships with outside foundations, and legislative appropriations.

Heldenfels wrote that the proposal is inefficient and that a better proposal would call for establishing such an entity under the coordinating board “and ensure that its operations are subject to rigorous oversight by a senior-level executive and advisory board appointed by the Governor, Lt. Governor, and Speaker.”

For the coordinating board, this is not the ideal time to have its role called into question. It is currently working its way through the so-called sunset review process, in which state agencies must justify their existence to legislators. Heldenfels, in his letter, cited examples to bolster his argument that they serve community colleges well.

“The THECB has consistently worked to involve community college stakeholders in decisions that impact the sector,” he wrote, adding that Paredes “regularly describes these institutions in his presentations to the Legislature as the ‘linchpin’ of both public and higher education that provide the best bargains in postsecondary education across the country.”

REEVE HAMILTON reports for The Texas Tribune where this story was originally published. It is reprinted here through a news partnership between the Tribune and the San Marcos Mercury.

 

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