The University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College have had a cozy relationship since 1991, when the two signed an agreement to pool their resources and allow students to seamlessly transfer between the community college and the four-year institution, which share a campus. Thursday, Texas Southmost’s Board of Trustees is scheduled to vote on a new operating agreement between the two institutions that some critics warn would cede too much of the community college board's authority over its own affairs.
The agreement, signed between the two institutions in 1991, allowed Texas-Brownsville to lease classroom space from TSC, lasts another 80 years; however, The Brownsville Herald reports that talk of drafting a new agreement stemmed recently from a growing dispute over $10.8 million in unpaid rent owed to Texas Southmost by UTB. Though some trustees say the revised agreement is more representative of the two institutions’ current relationship and is no cause for concern, other trustees say it essentially makes them powerless and puts the community college at risk of being taken over by the University of Texas System.
The new operating agreement would combine the assets of the two institutions in a trust to form a single legal entity (UTB/TSC) and would give that new entity ownership of all property and control of the two institutions' combined assets. It stipulates that the “business and affairs” of the new entity "shall be managed under the direction of the Board of Regents of the UT System with the advice and counsel of the Strategy and Planning Committee,” a group including several members of Texas Southmost’s Board of Trustees.
Still, elsewhere the agreement states that “nothing contained in this agreement shall be construed to abrogate in any way the power and duties of the Board of Trustees with regard to the governance and management of the Texas Southmost College District.” For example, the trustees will still have authority to “assess and collect ad valorem taxes" (property taxes received from the local community) and handle their “general administrative expenses.”
In yet another wrinkle, however, the agreement ultimately directs the Texas Southmost Board of Trustees to pay to the new entity “all amounts received by the Board of Trustees as appropriations, ad valorem tax collections and proceeds from the issuance and sale of bonds, notes and other obligations.” In this way, local property tax funds paid to the Board of Trustees for use by TSC would be pooled with all funds received by the new entity, including state and UT dollars, and spent on operations from that larger pot.
It is broad language such as this that concerns Patricio M. Ahumada Jr., mayor of Brownsville and a Democrat. He would like the TSC Board of Trustees to have more oversight as to how local tax dollars are spent and for what purpose.
“I don’t want to see us lose that entity by merging it in with the university system without defining very clearly how we’re going to operate as a junior college,” Ahumada said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. “I think this puts in jeopardy the purpose of the junior college, which is here to provide an affordable education to local students. We can leverage the resources of both institutions without anyone giving up their autonomy.”
Juan (Trey) Mendez, TSC trustee and partner at a Brownsville law firm, echoed some of the mayor's concerns.
“I think that [the new agreement] does diminish the powers of the Board of Trustees,” Mendez said. “That’s an absolute concern. We were elected to act on behalf of the people who put us here, so if there are any concerns that this will affect our decision-making ability it will affect them, too.”
Though Mendez refused to say definitively how he would vote Thursday, he did note his support for the agreement that currently exists between the two institutions.
“I’m glad we have the partnership we do with the UT system,” Mendez said. “I wouldn’t want to do anything to make that go away. I would only consider changing it if the right model comes along that would still benefit our students and still allow [the Board of Trustees] to have the decision-making authority.”
Others on the board, however, argue that concerned trustees like Mendez are making much ado about nothing. David G. Oliveira, a trustee for 16 years and partner at another Brownsville law firm, said the new partnership will do nothing but help both institutions.
For instance, Oliveira noted that the new agreement would count all students at UTB and TSC as attending a single institution, increasing the funding that the new entity would get from the state legislature. Additionally, he argued that the new agreement would help simplify the complicated accreditation and financial aid processes at both institutions to everyone’s mutual benefit.
Oliveira argued that a misunderstanding of the current agreement between the two institutions has caused many critics to unfairly worry about the changes the new agreement would make. For instance, he noted that UTB already has access to TSC tax levy dollars and has used it for academic purposes.
“We ceded a lot of that authority in 1991 because there’s no way that UT was going to come into this area without that agreement,” Oliveira said. “We traded that authority to give our students a local university to serve the local needs.… We gave up the local control we had and we got a great product. I don’t see how this new agreement is giving away any authority we’ve had since the beginning of our partnership.”
In 10 or 15 years, if a new agreement is approved, Oliveira said it was possible that the new entity would no longer need TSC’s Board of Trustees. He added that he was confident TSC would maintain its community college mission of providing open-access and workforce training well into the future if the new agreement is signed.
“You have to be flexible and open minded,” Oliveira said. “But people don’t like change.… I wouldn’t do this if I had any fear at all that this would jeopardize that local community college mission.”
Though Juliet V. García, president of UTB and TSC, could not be reached for comment, she has publicly expressed the desire for an updated agreement between the two institutions. Other UTB and TSC administrators have expressed a similar sentiment.
“The existing agreement is a patchwork more than 20 years old,” wrote Wayne Moore, special assistant to the provost for partnership affairs, in an e-mail. “We have learned much over the past 20 years and the new model proposed by the new agreement would take advantage of lessons learned. The new model is more specific and offers clearer organizational structure than the existing agreement. It also provides structure for more efficient operations that provide additional opportunities for increased funding, program growth, and local input.”