Alamo College controversies cloud bond election
Published 6:53 pm Sunday, January 8, 2017
By Kenric Ward
The Alamo Colleges in San Antonio want voters to approve $450 million in additional debt at a May 6 election. But new accreditation problems and growing concerns over spending point to possible trouble ahead.
The community college system took a hit when the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools deferred accreditation renewal of three of five Alamo campuses. A fourth campus, built with earlier bond money, has yet to be accredited.
Chief among the accreditors’ concerns was the colleges’ use of Stephen Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” in their curriculum. The Covey class – initially intended as a required course – was not approved by the faculty.
Alamo Chancellor Bruce Leslie stated, in writing, that the program had been “reviewed” by the college’s curriculum council. In fact, it was not – and Leslie’s declaration appeared to violate state regulations and district policy against “false reports.”
Charles Hinkley, Humanities Department chair at Northwest Vista College, called the Covey course a collection of “vague and dubious clichés.”
Alamo College Board member Clint Kingsbery said Leslie’s administration has a “weird relationship with Covey.”
“It’s almost cult-like,” he told Watchdog.
SACS issued accreditation warnings to four college campuses in its 11-state region last month. Three of them were Alamo campuses: San Antonio College, St. Philip’s and Northwest Vista.
SACS gave Alamo 12 months to address leadership, hiring and campus autonomy issues, or face loss of accreditation.
Meantime, district expenditures – from Leslie’s outsized salary to a planned $60 million administration headquarters to ballooning travel bills – are stirring controversy.
“We have highly paid district-level administrators performing duties already handled at the college-level staff,” says Craig Coroneos, a professor at Northwest Vista.
“Administrative ranks have grown, with 42 administrators making $100,000 or more per year,” he said. “This growth has occurred during a time in which overall enrollment has basically been flat.”
One flash point was the reassignment of Northeast Lakeview College president Craig Follins.
Leslie terminated Follins last year for “a pattern of unacceptable behavior” and moved him to a newly created “special projects administrator” position at the same salary, $205,387.
Northeast Lakeview has twice failed to achieve accreditation from SACS.
Diane Snyder, vice chancellor for finance and administration, said the bond package is lean. Among the big-ticket items are three new or expanded “community centers.”
“It’s tight at $450 million,” Snyder asserted.
Like an upcoming San Antonio city bond, also on the May ballot, Alamo says its latest debt package will not boost local property tax rates. Yet tax bills will go up as both the city and the college bank on rising appraised values to yield millions more in revenue.
Tony Villanueva, a psychology professor at Alamo’s Palo Alto College campus, calls the district’s $450 million ask “arbitrary.”
“Our situation is truly a question of priorities. Enrollment has decreased and classrooms go unused three out of seven days of the week,” he told Watchdog. “While classrooms are nearly empty in the afternoons and evenings … this bond and the administrative bloat will inevitably amount to a heavy tax burden on the working poor.”
A Citizens Advisory Committee on the bond questioned facilities management and maintenance programs. The panel called two buildings at historically black St. Philip’s College a “district disgrace” and recommended more outlays there.
Kingsbery said it may not be “realistic” to shift more funds to St. Philip’s; board members will debate the subject at a retreat on Jan. 7.
“We need to get it done before February to get the bond on the ballot,” he said.
Kenric Ward writes for the Texas Bureau of Watchdog.org. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @Kenricward.