Austin Community College trustees this week approved a $406 million budget for the 2019-20 school year that raises teacher pay but keeps tuition stable, reflecting the district’s concern about making college affordable.
A 3% raise will be given across the board to all full-time faculty, adjunct faculty and salaried staff to account for increases in the cost of living; it will cost the district roughly $5.8 million. Trustees also approved an increase in the minimum wage for hourly employees from $13 to $15 per hour, at a cost of about $590,000.
Tuition for Austin Community College students will remain unchanged for the sixth consecutive school year, with students who live inside and outside the district paying $67 per credit hour. Out-of-district students are charged an additional $276 in fees.
Students taking distance education courses will see lower costs in the next school year. The district has reduced the cost of distance courses by $75 per credit hour for students who live outside the district and $81 per credit hour for international and out-of-state students as part of the new budget. Distance learning courses are considerably more expensive at ACC than at many other Texas community colleges, especially for students who live outside the district, state and country, a June report given to trustees shows.
“Affordability is a large and growing concern,” ACC Board of Trustees Chair Gigi Edwards Bryant said in a statement Tuesday. “We are committed to finding new ways of keeping costs down and ensuring access for everyone.”
Some trustees had been pushing to give adjunct faculty additional compensation, on top of the 3% raise.
Adjunct employees work on a contract basis and make up about two-thirds of ACC’s nearly 2,000-member faculty and teach about half of its classes. They make 68.75% of what full-time employees make, which is more than at other community colleges in Texas.
Trustee Stephanie Gharakhanian moved on Monday to increase their pay to 70% of the full-time rate, which would have cost the district $697,095.
ACC budget, by the numbers• 2018-19 budget: $384.9 million
• Projected 2019-20 budget: $406.8 million, up $21.9 million (5.7%)
• ACC has not set a proposed tax rate for 2019-20 school year and crafted the budget assuming the same rate as last year, which was 10.48 cents per $100 in assessed property value.
• Officials said Thursday they plan to keep the maintenance and operations tax rate the same at 9 cents per $100 in assessed property value, which is the maximum the district can tax. The remainder of the tax rate will account for debt service.
• Trustees will hold public hearings on the proposed tax rate in August, for adoption in September.
“I understand that ACC is a leader with respect to other community colleges in Texas in terms of adjunct faculty compensation. However, I still do believe that adjunct faculty as a whole, not specific to ACC, not specific to the state of Texas, but generally across the country are not paid what they are worth,” Gharakhanian said. “It’s a very difficult position.”
The measure was voted down 3-6, with trustees Julie Ann Nitsch and Sean Hassan siding with Gharakhanian.
“The fact of the matter is we don’t see or understand why there would be a need to increase adjunct faculty (pay) more than the other employee groups, so we presented a budget that has an across-the-board increase,” ACC Chief Financial Officer Neil Vickers said at Monday’s board meeting. “They are not our least paid employee group. So again, it’s a little bit challenging to make a case to put more money into that group relative to other employee groups.”
Trustees did set aside $150,000 for a pilot program for the upcoming school year to assist adjunct faculty whose courses are cut because not enough students sign up. Adjuncts aren’t guaranteed a specific number of courses and are reported to lose significant time and anticipated income when this happens.
Under the new pilot, the adjunct faculty in this situation will get either a flat fee of $300 per cancelled class or the option to work instead as an instructional assistant, tutor or in another position. Trustees will assess the success of the program at the end of the 2019-20 school year.
“We need to pay people for the inconvenience,” Trustee Mark Williams said Monday of the plan. “But, desirably, what we have done is chosen to use our tuition dollars and taxpayer dollars to support our students.”
While the 2019-20 budget increased by 5.7% from the last fiscal year, the bulk of the $21.9 million in new revenue will go to staff salaries and paying off debt, leaving roughly $1.2 million for things like equipment, furniture, books and adult career and continuing education. An additional $2 million will go toward expanding the ACC Highland Campus on Airport Boulevard to include a creative media center, performing arts spaces, computer sciences classrooms, a small-business incubator and additional space for adult education, among other features. It is set to open in the fall of 2020.
Chief Academic Officer Charles Cook said that, after the salary increases, the district had little discretionary income left to address student-life programs and those that promote cultural diversity and awareness.
“Our students are increasingly first-generation, low-income students of color, students who need a lot more support than maybe students did in the past,” Cook said Monday. “As a consequence, our jobs are changing. We need a lot more advising. We need a lot more tutoring. We need to provide a lot more technology. We need to be teaching differently with active and collaborative learning, culturally relevant teaching.”
According to the district, about 60% of ACC’s $406 million budget comes from property tax revenue, 19% from tuition and fees and 16% from state appropriations.
To offset the rising cost of property taxes, trustees approved as part of the budget a standard $5,000 exemption for all homeowners in the district, meaning they will not have to pay ACC taxes on that portion of their property value. An additional 50% homestead exemption is also available for seniors and homeowners with disabilities, which amounts to a $160,000 exemption for a home at the median price of $320,000.
ACC this upcoming school year is also renewing its Green Pass program to offer free, unlimited Capital Metro bus and MetroRail rides to faculty, staff and students. The college will pay the transportation authority a $429,000 fee in exchange for reduced-cost passes for its students and employees to use for one semester. Starting this summer, students can access the Digital Green Pass on their mobile phones.
“Transportation is a real barrier in Central Texas, and getting to campus is one of the biggest hurdles our students face,” ACC President Richard Rhodes said. “This partnership with Capital Metro helps us provide some relief.”
Since implementing the program last year, ACC ridership has increased by 18%, the district said.