Emphasizing a growing need for skilled workers in the region, the Lone Star College System is seeking voter approval Nov. 4 for a $485 million bond package just 18 months after voters denied a $500 million bond referendum in May 2013.
LSCS Chancellor Steve Head said the bond package and message to voters has changed this year, but the need for the bond is as prevalent as it was in 2013 due to a 7 percent enrollment bump this fall.
"We've been one of the fastest growing community colleges in the country over the last 10 years but especially over the last five," Head said. "We've actually grown 68 percent since 2007, so we've added over 30,000 students. The size of the average community college in Texas is 5,500, and we have more than 82,000 credit students this semester."
Effects on the community
Despite the nearly $500 million in projects that would be paid for over time through property tax revenue, LSCS said the bonds would not have an effect on the college system's property tax rate if approved by voters.
Ray Laughter, LSCS vice chancellor for external affairs, said the system can avoid raising property taxes because of its history of paying off bonds before they mature, LSCS' AAA bond rating and the size of its service area.
"If [school districts] have a bond election for $485 million, they're only relying on the tax base of that school district," Laughter said. "We have 11 school districts in our tax base, so we're spreading it out over a very large area."
LSCS approved a 6.8 percent decrease in the property tax rate Sept. 4 from 11.6 cents per $100 valuation last year to 10.81 cents.
Although LSCS officials claim the bond will not lead to property tax rate increases, some groups are still unsure of the effect the bond referendum could have on the service area.
"We want to determine if there's a need for more buildings, and if the evidence is there, then this would be a bond that we would support," said Julie Turner, president of the Texas Patriots PAC.
The political action committee did not support the system's 2013 bond election because the group said enrollment growth did not justify the need for so much new construction, Turner said. The Texas Patriots PAC is located in Montgomery County where 77 percent of voters voted against the bond.
Turner said the Texas Patriots PAC is still deciding whether to support the bond, but she would like to see the college system consider alternatives to constructing new facilities like emphasizing more online instruction.
Laughter said as many as 30,000 students are already enrolled in online courses, but the classes are not an alternative to the growth.
"Even though some people will say, 'That's the wave of the future; that's where we're headed,' we're not seeing that," Laughter said. "Students still want to come to campus because of the way they learn, because of the social nature of a college student [and] because of the resources they use there."
Should the bond fail, Head and Laughter said capping enrollment is a likely possibility.
"[Capping enrollment] is just not good business," Head said. "These students, where are they going to go? What are they going to do? We want them to have an education and go to work."
Growing workforce programs
The most significant change from the 2013 bond is the emphasis on workforce programs. The estimated cost for advanced technology centers in the bond total $97.5 million, or about one-third the cost of all new construction systemwide.
New centers planned in the bond package could help meet the growing need for workers in the oil, gas and computer technology industries, LSCS officials said.
"Consider that two-thirds of the health care workers train here at community colleges," Laughter said. "When people think about the community college and if it weren't here, how would it impact their lives? We just would [not] have the kind of skilled workers we have at all the occupations that we rely on."
Partnerships are developing across the community between Lone Star College and corporations, like Baker Hughes, that are in need of skilled workers.
"The oil and gas industry is constantly and rapidly changing," Baker Hughes CEO Martin Craighead said. "There is a constant state of learning that needs to take place."
If voters approve the LSCS bond in November, several new additions and improvements are planned for LSC–Montgomery. Among those are a new 60,000-square-foot student services building, renovations in 90,000 square feet of the campus, improved campus security features, upgraded technology and 460 additional parking spaces.
"A student services center provides registration, advising, admission, counseling—kind of a one-stop-shop that helps you retain students and [helps] students be more successful and complete their degrees," LSC–Montgomery President Austin Lane said.
Since 2009, enrollment at LSC–Montgomery has increased by about 4 percent per year, with student enrollment this year topping out at nearly 14,000, Lane said.
"The return on investment voters will see are that our students typically live, work and play here," he said. "They will be our next fireman, policeman and nurses. They will carry the torch. We want to be able to provide the means for them to do that."
Two new LSCS centers—one at Creekside and a Magnolia satellite location—are planned for construction in the near future. The Creekside Center was originally part of the $500 million bond that failed to receive voter approval in May 2013 and will not be included in this year's bond package.
The Creekside Center will be funded through revenue bonds from the system's operating budget, Head said.
Enrollment at the estimated 85,000-square-foot, 15-acre center is anticipated to reach 3,500 students and offer specialized workforce training for high-demand jobs, said Lee Ann Nutt, acting president of the Tomball campus.
"It's going to be a great center because of its location," said Ronnie Pickard, executive director of college relations at LSC–Tomball. "We will focus our efforts on petroleum engineering that will cater to the new ExxonMobil center."
At a yet to be determined location, early planning is underway for a 65,000-square-foot Magnolia satellite center. Funding for the Magnolia Center hinges on the passage of the bond, and the location will likely be managed by LSC–Montgomery through a quasi-partnership with the Tomball campus, Pickard said.
"[The Magnolia Center] really creates a unique opportunity for students at large," Pickard said. "Being [that] Magnolia is where it's located, the proximity of [taking additional classes in] Tomball or Montgomery is a perfect-world scenario for them."