The Alamo Colleges isn’t the biggest community college district in the state, but it is first in degrees conferred in Texas, with more than 12,000 students completing their two-year programs in the 2015-16 academic year.

That is an impressive multiple of the 3,700 students who received degrees one decade earlier in the 2005-06 academic year. With San Antonio set to grow by 1 million people over the next 25 years, the success or failure of the system that offers low-cost higher education will have much to say about San Antonio’s place in the hierarchy of leading U.S. cities.

We can import all the smart workers we want; How well we educate our own children and prepare them for adult life will be a far more important measure.

All in, nearly 90,000 students attend classes in the course of an academic year at one of the five campuses in the district. Two-thirds of them are pursuing degrees, while the other third is there to take advantage of affordable learning opportunities and skill development. A majority of the students hold down one or more jobs, are the first in their families to attend college, and many are raising children. That’s why so many take 4-6 years to complete a two-year degree.

In other words, the face of the Alamo Colleges is the face of San Antonio.

That’s why the Alamo Colleges Board of Trustees should move forward with the district’s $450 million bond initiative and place it on the May 6 General Election ballot. Voters also are being asked to approve six initiatives totaling $850 million for the City of San Antonio’s municipal bond.

Taken together, the two bonds represent a $1.3 billion investment in the future of San Antonio and its workforce. Investing in one without the other makes no sense. Why invest in streets, drainage, parks, and libraries if we are not going to invest in the education of San Antonio’s emerging generations.

Neither bond program will result in a tax increase. Both the City and the Alamo Colleges District enjoy rare AAA bond ratings. San Antonio is the only city of more than 1 million people whose credit rating is so sterling. I was unable to find any other city that boasts both municipal government and a community college district whose fiscal practices are so highly rated they merit AAA ratings and the low interest rates that come with such grades.

That’s also why voters should consider both bonds at the same time. There is no reason for delaying the Alamo Colleges vote – except fear.

A lot of misinformation is circulating in the community about the accreditation status of three of the five district campuses. San Antonio College, St. Philip’s College, and Northwest Vista College received warning notices during their reaffirmation process with the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC). Click on the links to the individual colleges to read the SACSCOC disclosure statements.

The warnings center on technical and administrative processes that are easily addressed and resolved, and that, frankly, involve operations, systems, and processes that previously were approved by the very same commission. Still, the word “warning” from an accreditation body to any institution of higher learning is akin to yelling fire in a dark theater. People panic and head for the doors even when there is no smoke, much less fire.

I am not making light of the identified infractions or administrative inadequacies, but there is nothing on the list  that points to issues with the schools’ academic standards, the district’s finances, or anything that threatens the accreditation of any of the five campuses. All accreditations remain in effect.

The Alamo Colleges could best avoid future accreditation hiccups by abandoning the time-consuming and very expensive process of seeking individual accreditation for each of its five campuses. While all the colleges are fiercely protective of their individual identities and histories, the fact is we have one community college district in San Antonio and that is how it should be structured, marketed, and positioned in the education ecosystem.

The hundreds of thousands of dollars saved in the process can be pumped back into educating students. Individual campuses will still have their stories to tell and their histories and traditions to cherish.

Dr. Bruce Leslie, Alamo Colleges Chancellor (Photo courtesy of Alamo Colleges)
Alamo Colleges Chancellor Bruce Leslie

The warnings have brought a wave of bad publicity down on the district, which has never been particularly strong at telling its own story, in my view. That is compounded by the continuing skirmishes that have occurred under the decade-long tenure of Dr. Bruce Leslie, the district chancellor. Leslie was brought in as a change agent, and he has lived up to the description, encountering a small, but vocal faculty group opposing him all along the way.

His path would have been a less rocky one had he found a more effective communicator to serve as his internal guide and external voice. What he has enjoyed throughout his years as chancellor is strong and unequivocal board support.

There is an interesting comparison to make between Leslie and City Manager Sheryl Sculley. Both were outsiders brought here about a decade ago to clean up organizational messes, eliminate cronyism, and bring a new level of professionalization and fiscal management to their respective entities. Both inherited organizations that saw elected leaders accused of public corruption in the 1990s.

Both Leslie and Sculley have succeeded beyond expectations, and both have the scars to prove it. Adversaries can point to mistakes they’ve made, times when they could have done better in the realm of communications, or instances where they could have been less adversarial in their managerial styles. But changing a large, taxpayer-supported organization is very hard work under the best of circumstances, and not a job for people who worry first about what people are saying about them.

If I were advising Leslie, I would tell him to ditch the controversial Stephen Covey training he has brought to the Alamo Colleges. Covey, who died in 2012 at the age of 80, sold tens of millions of copies of his seminal work, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but there are probably just as many people who think the Mormon businessman, author, and college professor was a snake oil salesman. The two sides will never meet, and in my view, such mass-market, self-help publications turn off serious academics and simply serve as a divisive wedge on campus where one need not exist.

Like Covey, we’d all like every student to be a leader, but that’s a ridiculous proposition. How about we wish for every student to become a graduate? Even that is grasping for the unachievable, but at least it’s rational at its core. More importantly, any opportunity to eliminate a simmering point of conflict between administration and faculty should be seized.

The Alamo Colleges District has a good story to tell. It’s doing great work in our community, training students to win jobs that will elevate them and their families into the middle class. Most of those students arrive at one of the five Alamo Colleges unprepared for college, so the challenge is daunting.

Back to the bond: There are many buildings at San Antonio College and St. Philip’s College, in particular, that date back to the 1950s. The classrooms are small and dark, and unsuitable for technology upgrades. Multiple buildings have serious asbestos and mold issues. Those need immediate replacement or remediation. A coming article on the Rivard Report will provide a more detailed look at the broad range of new facilities that the $450 million bond will fund in all parts of the city.

The growing demand for affordable higher education, the rise in early college dual credit programs, and the city’s fast-growing population all point to the growing importance of timely investment in the Alamo Colleges.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.