By Dana Delgado
In November 2014, college-bound students from Liberty Hill got a major new opportunity when Austin Community College District voters approved two bond proposals representing $386 million in college-wide capital improvements including the construction of a new 100-acre campus in nearby Leander. The present undeveloped property designated for the new campus is expected to move forward as ACC Trustees select an architect in July 2015 and a construction manager later this summer.
“I’m excited about the opportunities the Leander campus will provide for our students,” said Claudeane Braun, Curriculum Director for the Liberty Hill Independent School District. “I can see that our upper-level students could possibly take dual enrollment courses at that campus, opening additional choices for students. I think the close campus will provide for an even stronger partnership with ACC.”
The new Leander campus to be located at US Highway 183 and Hero Way near the Leander Capital Metro Rail Station is projected to serve one of the fastest-growing areas in the region and relieve crowding at ACC’s Cypress Creek Campus in Cedar Park. Tentative plans for the new campus call for a scaled-down version of the ACC Highland Campus ACCelerator advanced computer lab and facilities and a focus on general education courses providing students with skills, knowledge, and real-world career experiences. An initial enrollment of 2,000 students is expected for the $60 million project.
As one of 32 central Texas school districts being served by ACC, LHISD is able to provide its residents the higher education opportunities available at ACC that include affordable, flexible pathways in a range of over 100 areas of study at any of the eight present or future campuses. The opportunities, however, are limited and come at a much higher cost since LHISD is not an “in-district” region that contributes to the ACC district tax base.
“We (LHISD) are limited in the number of dual credit courses we offer because the ACC professors are assigned first to districts within ACC taxing authority,” said Director Braun. “We have had to change plans numerous times because a teacher wasn’t available.”
Presently, Austin ISD, the City of Austin (including portions of Eanes ISD and Pflugerville ISD), Del Valle ISD, Elgin ISD, Hays CISD, Leander ISD, Manor ISD, and Round Rock ISD are “in-district” members of ACC.
Students who are Texas residents but live out of the ACC taxing district pay an additional $222 per credit hour according to the ACC tuition rate chart for the 2015-16 academic year. An “in-district” student, for example, pays $804 for 12 credit hours while an out-of-district student is required to pay not only the basic tuition of $804 but an additional $2,664 for a total of $3468 for the same 12 credit hours. Out-of-state and international non-residents of Texas pay a total tuition rate of $4320 for 12 credit hours.
Braun said having an “in-district” relationship with Austin Community College would be a positive step for the Liberty Hill community.
“I want to see this happen at some point,” Braun said. “I just don’t know when the timing is right for our community. Being part of ACC, would help us provide quality instructors for our on-campus dual enrollment classes. Also, I see a lot of opportunities for partnerships, especially in our CTE (Career Technology Education) endorsements. There would be a closer connection for students with a college, so students see that they have a lot of options after high school. ACC does a great job combining academic and vocational programs.”
To become an “in-district” and taxing member of a community college district, a school district or occasionally a city would have to petition to join the college district through a process outlined in the Texas Education Code known as “annexation by election.”
No earlier than 180 days before petitions are to be submitted for review by the college election administrator, petitioners must gather signatures from at least 5 percent of registered voters in a specifically defined community (based on most recent state and county general election figures). A minimum of 10 percent to 12 percent of voters is recommended in order to allow for invalid signatures.
If the college trustees determine that the petition is valid, a service plan would be proposed followed by a public hearing and an annexation election in the community. If the measure wins voter approval, the community is officially part of the college district’s taxing authority and the community begins paying ad valorem taxes to the college district in exchange for increased services and reduced tuition as well as gaining voting rights in all college elections.
For Austin Community College, the 2014-15 tax rates are $0.0942 per $100 assessed property value, the college’s lowest tax rate in a decade. The average Texas community college tax rate is $0.16 per $100 assessed property value. Commercial properties are taxed at the same rate as residential property; however, per Texas Property Tax Code, commercial properties are taxed on both real property and personal property, while residential properties are only taxed on real property. In addition, ACC provides a $5,000 homestead exemption to all residential taxpayers. The college also has a $125,000 exemption for elderly taxpayers and homeowners with disabilities, for a total exemption of $130,000 for those taxpayers.
Under the 2014-15 ACC District tax rate for a property valued at $200,000, the rate is $15.31 per month for a regular homestead, $5.50 monthly for a senior or disabled exemption, and $15.70 a month for businesses.
Unlike public four-year colleges and universities, community colleges like ACC are funded through three primary sources – tuition and fees, state funding, and property taxes. Campus facilities, however, are constructed and maintained without any state support.
Austin Community College is nationally recognized two-year college that has been serving Central Texas for 40 years. Besides offering a wide range of choices to start or continue an education, ACC offers specific skills training for high-demand careers, GED preparation and programs and individual classes that enhance skills for success in college.
According to external research conducted by ACC, programs and services offered by community colleges bring an impressive return on investment. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board estimates that the state’s return on its investment in higher education is $8.08 for every $1 invested.