Alamo Colleges’ $450 Million Bond Belongs on the May 6 Ballot

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St. Phillip's College. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

St. Philip's College would greatly benefit from the proposed $450 million bond if approved by voters on the May 6 ballot.

The Alamo Colleges isn’t the biggest community college district in the state, but it is first in degrees conferred in Texas, with more than 12,000 students completing their two-year programs in the 2015-16 academic year.

That is an impressive multiple of the 3,700 students who received degrees one decade earlier in the 2005-06 academic year. With San Antonio set to grow by 1 million people over the next 25 years, the success or failure of the system that offers low-cost higher education will have much to say about San Antonio’s place in the hierarchy of leading U.S. cities.

We can import all the smart workers we want; How well we educate our own children and prepare them for adult life will be a far more important measure.

All in, nearly 90,000 students attend classes in the course of an academic year at one of the five campuses in the district. Two-thirds of them are pursuing degrees, while the other third is there to take advantage of affordable learning opportunities and skill development. A majority of the students hold down one or more jobs, are the first in their families to attend college, and many are raising children. That’s why so many take 4-6 years to complete a two-year degree.

In other words, the face of the Alamo Colleges is the face of San Antonio.

That’s why the Alamo Colleges Board of Trustees should move forward with the district’s $450 million bond initiative and place it on the May 6 General Election ballot. Voters also are being asked to approve six initiatives totaling $850 million for the City of San Antonio’s municipal bond.

Taken together, the two bonds represent a $1.3 billion investment in the future of San Antonio and its workforce. Investing in one without the other makes no sense. Why invest in streets, drainage, parks, and libraries if we are not going to invest in the education of San Antonio’s emerging generations.

Neither bond program will result in a tax increase. Both the City and the Alamo Colleges District enjoy rare AAA bond ratings. San Antonio is the only city of more than 1 million people whose credit rating is so sterling. I was unable to find any other city that boasts both municipal government and a community college district whose fiscal practices are so highly rated they merit AAA ratings and the low interest rates that come with such grades.

That’s also why voters should consider both bonds at the same time. There is no reason for delaying the Alamo Colleges vote – except fear.

A lot of misinformation is circulating in the community about the accreditation status of three of the five district campuses. San Antonio College, St. Philip’s College, and Northwest Vista College received warning notices during their reaffirmation process with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). Click on the links to the individual colleges to read the SACSCOC disclosure statements.

The warnings center on technical and administrative processes that are easily addressed and resolved, and that, frankly, involve operations, systems, and processes that previously were approved by the very same commission. Still, the word “warning” from an accreditation body to any institution of higher learning is akin to yelling fire in a dark theater. People panic and head for the doors even when there is no smoke, much less fire.

I am not making light of the identified infractions or administrative inadequacies, but there is nothing on the list  that points to issues with the schools’ academic standards, the district’s finances, or anything that threatens the accreditation of any of the five campuses. All accreditations remain in effect.

The Alamo Colleges could best avoid future accreditation hiccups by abandoning the time-consuming and very expensive process of seeking individual accreditation for each of its five campuses. While all the colleges are fiercely protective of their individual identities and histories, the fact is we have one community college district in San Antonio and that is how it should be structured, marketed, and positioned in the education ecosystem.

The hundreds of thousands of dollars saved in the process can be pumped back into educating students. Individual campuses will still have their stories to tell and their histories and traditions to cherish.

Dr. Bruce Leslie, Alamo Colleges Chancellor (Photo courtesy of Alamo Colleges)

Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie

The warnings have brought a wave of bad publicity down on the district, which has never been particularly strong at telling its own story, in my view. That is compounded by the continuing skirmishes that have occurred under the decade-long tenure of Dr. Bruce Leslie, the district chancellor. Leslie was brought in as a change agent, and he has lived up to the description, encountering a small, but vocal faculty group opposing him all along the way.

His path would have been a less rocky one had he found a more effective communicator to serve as his internal guide and external voice. What he has enjoyed throughout his years as chancellor is strong and unequivocal board support.

There is an interesting comparison to make between Leslie and City Manager Sheryl Sculley. Both were outsiders brought here about a decade ago to clean up organizational messes, eliminate cronyism, and bring a new level of professionalization and fiscal management to their respective entities. Both inherited organizations that saw elected leaders accused of public corruption in the 1990s.

Both Leslie and Sculley have succeeded beyond expectations, and both have the scars to prove it. Adversaries can point to mistakes they’ve made, times when they could have done better in the realm of communications, or instances where they could have been less adversarial in their managerial styles. But changing a large, taxpayer-supported organization is very hard work under the best of circumstances, and not a job for people who worry first about what people are saying about them.

If I were advising Leslie, I would tell him to ditch the controversial Stephen Covey training he has brought to the Alamo Colleges. Covey, who died in 2012 at the age of 80, sold tens of millions of copies of his seminal work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but there are probably just as many people who think the Mormon businessman, author, and college professor was a snake oil salesman. The two sides will never meet, and in my view, such mass-market, self-help publications turn off serious academics and simply serve as a divisive wedge on campus where one need not exist.

Like Covey, we’d all like every student to be a leader, but that’s a ridiculous proposition. How about we wish for every student to become a graduate? Even that is grasping for the unachievable, but at least it’s rational at its core. More importantly, any opportunity to eliminate a simmering point of conflict between administration and faculty should be seized.

The Alamo Colleges District has a good story to tell. It’s doing great work in our community, training students to win jobs that will elevate them and their families into the middle class. Most of those students arrive at one of the five Alamo Colleges unprepared for college, so the challenge is daunting.

Back to the bond: There are many buildings at San Antonio College and St. Philip’s College, in particular, that date back to the 1950s. The classrooms are small and dark, and unsuitable for technology upgrades. Multiple buildings have serious asbestos and mold issues. Those need immediate replacement or remediation. A coming article on the Rivard Report will provide a more detailed look at the broad range of new facilities that the $450 million bond will fund in all parts of the city.

The growing demand for affordable higher education, the rise in early college dual credit programs, and the city’s fast-growing population all point to the growing importance of timely investment in the Alamo Colleges.

4 thoughts on “Alamo Colleges’ $450 Million Bond Belongs on the May 6 Ballot

  1. Mr. Rivard, I can see where you are coming from with your support for the ACCD bond issue, but what happens if this bond fails in May due to the misperceptions surrounding accreditation? I don’t understand why the board of trustees is moving forward with this election now before taking care of their issues in-house. Will they not still likely hold AAA ratings in six months or a year? Being able to say to the community that they took a hard look in the mirror and came out stronger after addressing the concerns of SACSCOC would make a much more compelling case than saying “Just trust us” when trust in public institutions is, fairly or not, at an all time low.

  2. You are right, Mr. Rivard! You have been short but what you said contain a lot of wisdom. Indeed, engaging such way with people is a sort of losing than winning, so its better to let go in the short run on behalf of the medium and long-term win. Ahead on time, quality interactions will be resumed where connection, humility, patience, compassion, tolerance, generosity, teamwork, trust, willingness to change, and common goals are worth a lot more than a single misunderstanding. Administration and faculty need each other to make the difference and excel the accomplishments they are capable of. It is vital for Dr. Leslie to focus on what is right and fair with a sense of destiny, and keep moving forward to meet challenges into growth opportunities to prepare and advance the city’s skilled professionals, particularly now when the President Trump is fomenting massive progress at all levels of our economy.
    May the following quotes gladden the journey for all by their huge potential and fill every desire by the size of their greatness to make a superb future for every student and for the glory of Alamo Colleges:
    “Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any one thing.”
    Abraham Lincoln
    “One person with a belief is equal to a force of 99 who have only interests.”
    John Stuart Mill
    “The difference between perseverance and obstinacy is that one comes from a strong will, and the other from a strong won’t.”
    Henry Ward Beecher
    “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”
    Winston Churchill
    “By perseverance the snail reached the ark.”
    Charles Haddon Spurgeon
    “Few things are impossible to diligence and skill. Great works are performed not by strength, but perseverance.”
    Samuel Johnson
    “If you wish to succeed in life, make perseverance your bosom friend, experience your wise counselor, caution your elder brother, and hope your guardian genius.”
    Joseph Addison
    “Happy are those who dream dreams and are ready to pay the price to make them come true.”
    Leon J. Suenens
    “So many of our dreams at first seem impossible, then they seem improbable, and then, when we summon the will, they soon become inevitable.”
    Christopher Reeve
    “What we call failure is not the falling down but the staying down.”
    Mary Pickford
    “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.”
    Calvin Coolidge
    “Wanting something is not enough. You must hunger for it. Your motivation must be absolutely compelling in order to overcome the obstacles that will invariably come your way.”
    Les Brown
    “You cannot fail unless you quit.”
    Abraham Lincoln
    “Fall seven times, stand up eight.”
    Japanese Proverb
    “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.”
    Thomas A. Edison
    “Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm.”
    Winston Churchill

  3. Leslie has attempted to run the college district as he imagines a business should run, ignoring academic protocols and practices, the independence of the individual colleges under the accreditation system, input from faculty and students, and ultimately, many of the policies of the district itself. He has hired people whose only qualifications are that they will support him. (The former president of Northeast Lakeview is one example). He has tried to remove decisions regarding curriculum from the faculty and force his own ideas on them. His main problem has been ego and arrogance, and those two attributes have created waves and resistance. I don’t even work for the District, yet I know these things. These are the tip of the “iceberg.” He should be sent on his way.

  4. I am trying to find out information on the upcoming May 6th election and the bond issue that the ACCD is putting on the ballot. It is difficult to figure out the why and where fors …. please enlighten me.

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