Higher education presidents: Decline in state funding impacts the region

Presidents of higher education institutes across the Permian Basin have spoken clearly about their goals to ensure student success — but without sufficient funding from the legislature, they said it will be difficult to fully achieve.

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Steve Thomas of Midland College, Gregory Williams of Odessa College and Sandra Woodley of the University of Texas of the Permian Basin sat on center stage in the Horseshoe Pavilion — among many other educators and businesses at Wednesday’s State of Education luncheon — discussing their recent conversations with the state legislature.

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Thomas said MC is one of 50 community colleges in the state, and each are individually governed by elected officials and trustees. However, all 50 community colleges are treated as a one-line item in the state appropriation.

“It’s a complicated formula, but we work through that, (because) there are three buckets of money (for all community colleges in Texas),” Thomas said.

In addition to state appropriation, funding also comes from tuition fees and local tax bases.

In MC’s most recent audit from December, the state provided 16 percent of the college’s operating budget. Forty-two percent of funding came from local tax bases, and 21 percent came from tuition fees. In 2002, it was nearly reversed with the state providing funds in the 40 percent range — and even before that, the state provided funds in the 60 percent range.

This change in pattern has created a dilemma, because MC officials do not want to raise tuition, or increase local tax bases, just because state funding has decreased.

“For you, people that pay your taxes to support us, where’s that money going to come from if we continue to see the state decline?” Thomas asked the crowd.

Williams said he also appreciates the local tax bases who have been wonderful about paying for what the state has not, but he and Thomas do not want to take advantage of it, knowing it is a conservative area with people who do not like to see their taxes raised. However, OC and MC are holding the No. 1 spot in terms of community college success across the state.

Williams said he served as the chair for the Texas Association of Community Colleges this year, representing OC, Thomas and the other 48 community college presidents in Texas, and he thinks the state economics are healthy, but their focus is on K-12 public education this session.

On Monday, the Senate passed Senate Bill 3, which increases the salary of every teacher and librarians in the state by $5,000 at a cost of $4 billion over the next two years.

“But also, they’re wanting to do more for community colleges at the state level during the session as well,” Williams said.

However, Senate Bill 2 and House Bill 2 could place limits on how much community colleges could raise in additional revenue from local tax bases, which is an issue, he said. Now colleges will have to look at increasing revenue in a different way.

Though state funding toward community college has not necessarily declined in total, it has seen a relative decline based on a per-student basis, he said, and 2019 could be a year when it begins to change.

“But that could leave us vulnerable in future years if we don’t have as much flexibility to respond to the economic downturns or issues from our local tax base,” Williams said.

In response to the experiences of the two community college presidents, Woodley explained her beliefs in funding formulas — and why the colleges in West Texas are not receiving sufficient funds — and what is being done to help.

Receiving her doctorate in Business Administration in Management degree, she said it was always her responsibility to develop and define funding formulas.

“(It is) about 30 percent math, about 70 percent politics,” Woodley said. “I don’t mean that in a politically disparaging way, (but) they’re arbitrary in some level (that) the powers are able to determine how the formulas are done or not.”

These formulas are also backward-looking, and they focus on what has happened in the past and not what is trying to be accomplished.

Woodley also said it is also related to what it costs to run the university, and in Texas, the model is heavily-weighted toward institutions that are major research institutions and have doctoral programs.

“That is not my mission, and that is not what I do,” Woodley said. “UTPB will never fair in a one-size-fits-all funding formula like the one used in Texas.”

Because of this, the UTPB budget is heavily dependent on special-item funding from the legislature. While she said this session is not horrible-looking, the senate has cut off some of the special-item funding which she would like back.

“I guarantee I need every penny in that budget to be able to move the university forward and then some,” Woodley said.

In the meantime, she said state Reps. Tom Craddick and Brooks Landgraf have filed a bill, earmarking that 9 percent of taxes coming out of the Permian Basin in oil and gas comes back to the Permian Basin. She said most of it will fund needs in infrastructure, roads and bridges and K-12 education, but higher education will receive some of it as well.

She said since she began her tenure as president a little less than two years ago, she can see the collaboration and strategic partnerships among the community are starting to become successful.

“(It gives) the ability for the decision makers to understand how important the Permian Basin is, at this time, and the world’s history,” Woodley said. “It is not a hyperbole to say that the success of the Permian Basin is relevant to global success. (So, they’ve begun) making sure the goose — that is laying all the golden eggs — has the care she needs to continue to do that. I think there is starting to be some traction for them to say, ‘We do need to invest back in the Permian Basin,’ so there are no stumbling blocks to the potential success that we are seeing here.”

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