Austin-American Statesman: Debate on Pflugerville annexation into ACC heats up
By: Mike Parker, Austin Community Newspapers Staff
Despite being months away from Election Day, a robust discussion is already underway on whether the Pflugerville area should be annexed into the Austin Community College district, with supporters and opponents making their case on social media and in the community.
While the idea of annexing the Pflugerville area into ACC is not a new topic, the election marks the first time voters will have a say on whether the time is right for Pflugerville to join one of the largest college systems in the nation.
The service plan
The annexation election became official after ACC board trustees voted in August to put the item on the Nov. 6 ballot. A community group, Pflugerville Pfriends 4 ACC, collected 3,556 voter signatures, spurring the election.
If approved in November, the portion of the Pflugerville school district currently outside of the ACC district would receive services listed under a service plan approved by the ACC board. A small portion of the district including Connally High School is already within the ACC district.
The service plan includes a discount on tuition fees — from $361 to $85 per credit hour — and opening a “Workforce Innovation Campus/Center” for education in health care, information technology, advanced manufacturing and other fields.
During a public hearing on the annexation held in July, ACC President and CEO Richard Rhodes said the campus would ideally be located near a high school or hospital, with the focal point of the campus to be determined.
“We will work with the community to determine what the highest need is,” he said.
Other services — such as student advising, academic and career counseling, financial aid, noncredit continuing education, English as a second language, and adult basic education to prepare people for college-level courses — are included in the plan.
The annexation also allows residents within the Pflugerville district to vote and run in board elections.
For those services, homeowners would begin paying an ACC tax rate of 10.48 cents per $100 property valuation. For an average existing home value of $273,327 in the Pflugerville district with and a $5,000 homestead exemption, that amounts to $281 in property taxes.
ACC also provides a $150,000 senior or disabled exemption, which according to the college website is the highest such exemption offered in the region.
The election has led to residents forming community groups and a debate on whether joining the ACC district is prudent.
Tammy Smith, chairwoman of Pflugerville Pfriends 4 ACC, said her group essentially wants residents to have access to affordable education, so they can compete better with cities that are in the ACC district, such as Round Rock and Cedar Park.
Smith argues that numerous economic benefits would come from having a local education center. Daytime traffic from college students would stimulate more local business — from companies to retail to restaurants — and be convenient for people seeking continuing education.
Having a workforce-focused education center also has its advantages, she said.
“If it’s the first of its kind, you will bring in people from other communities and create more daytime traffic for businesses,” she said.
While Pflugerville Pfriends 4 ACC continues touting the potential benefits, community groups like Pflugerville Residents for Responsible Taxation and Pflugerville Pfriends Not 4 ACC are saying the price tag is too much for services rendered.
David Rogers, spokesperson for the former group, said joining the ACC district would mostly fund services the college provides outside of the Pflugerville area, and only a small portion of local residents would actually attend classes.
“It’s just a negative return on our investment,” he said.
On their website and through social media, Rogers’ group has used statistics to challenge annexation. Particularly, the group has pointed to a decrease in local students attending ACC over the past five years. According to one spreadsheet, local student attendance dipped from 2,088 in 2013 to 1,858 in 2017.
Terry Newsom of Pflugerville Pfriends Not 4 ACC emphasized that annexation would mean implementing a college property tax that would run in perpetuity. While that tax is small compared to most other taxing entities, he said it still has an effect on residents, especially those on a tight budget.
“Taking food out of one kid’s mouth and putting it into this is not a good trade,” he said.
Rogers and Newsom both said a city or school district program involving student financial assistance would better serve the community. Smith also said an agreement to provide tuition discounts for Temple College in Hutto would make more sense.
“We do want to give options for the kids that do go,” he said. “Why not set up a scholarship fund or a lower tax rate for the kids that actually go?”
But Smith argued the annexation would be a communitywide benefit. She pointed to an ACC news release noting that every $1 invested in higher education has an $8.08 return in investment.
“This is going to improve the entire community, which does affect everyone,” she said.
Opponents have also questioned the quality of education offered by ACC. Rogers pointed to a recent study by Wallethub listing ACC as the second-worst among 46 community colleges in Texas. The study factored in cost and financing, education outcomes and career outcomes in grading each community college.
Social media chatter
Social media platforms, especially Facebook, have hosted lively — and at times rancorous — debate on the annexation, almost to the point of at least one group moderator calling it a “full-time job.”
Omega Baker, whose Pflugerville Neighbors group has 9,838 members, said posts for and against the annexation flooded the group page, which degraded into name-calling and other “bad behavior.”
Moderators for the neighborhood group created a single post to funnel comments on the debate, but Baker said it soon became too much to monitor as comments swelled to over 500.
“Once it became degrading, we shut it down,” she said. “It became circular, people saying things over and over.”
Baker, who said she is for annexation, said those opposed to it were more likely to make vindictive comments. Smith, who has often commented on Facebook threads, agreed.
“We’ve had people being called horrible names,” Baker said. “They’re trolling people. There’s a huge amount of intimidation.”
Larry Paseornek, whose Pflugerville Community group has 2,834 members, said he sees more people against the annexation in his group, since many were banned from the Pflugerville Neighbors group.
“It’s a far-left group, and anyone else not in that group is gone,” he said.
Paseornek, who argued against annexation, said some “Facebook warriors” can become uncivil under the prospect of raising taxes. “They’re behind a screen, and you have to deal with it a little bit differently,” he said.
Paseornek and others opposing annexation pointed to polls on Facebook showing most people were against annexation. As of Friday, one poll on the Pflugerville Neighbors group page shows 154 people voting “no,” 91 voting “yes” and 16 “undecided.”
Down to a vote
During the Aug. 13 ACC board meeting, trustees noted the strong engagement they saw from Pflugerville residents before deciding to approve the annexation election.
Trustee Mark Williams said with a strong service plan ready for the Pflugerville area, he felt ACC was in a good position.
“We look forward to what the voters have to say,” he said.