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COPS/Metro Alliance warns ACCD board: Let's get it right

Last Tuesday, a dedicated group of community activists, including one with his oxygen tank in tow, crowded onto the steps of Holy Redeemer Catholic Church to watch as elected officials, religious leaders, and representatives from COPS/Metro Alliance presented a new ACCD bond proposal, one they think voters will support.

The 103-year-old church is in the midst of a major renovation and, at times, the speakers had to raise their voices over the rumble of trucks and construction. Yet, their message to the Alamo Community College District Board of Trustees came through loud and clear: COPS/Metro and the community will support only a bond that expands nursing and allied health programs at the district's four colleges: St. Philip's, San Antonio, Palo Alto, and Northwest Vista.

County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson says that with its new ACCD bond proposal, COPS/Metro is handing the ACCD board "a grand slam in November." "All the right ingredients are just sitting here waiting," he said. "The board must harmonize with the community. There have already been two failed bond proposals, and the board can ill-afford a third. Education is the guardian genius of democracy." (Photo by Melissa Santos)

"COPS/Metro will not support a centralized nursing program at the Northeast campus," said Sister Gabriela Lohan, co-chair of Metro Alliance. "It will siphon students and support away from St. Philip's and SAC and become a pilot program for future expansion and funding." The group also urged the ACCD board to get a new bond on the ballot as quickly as possible.

Last February, the ACCD board held a bond election that failed due to community outcry over the centralized nursing and allied health campus it would have created at the South Texas Medical Center on the North Side. Proponents of the bond, including ACCD Chancellor Terence Kelly, Board Chairman Charlie Conner, and several board members, supported the location not only as the population center of Bexar County and the hub of the medical community, but also as readily available land. There, they argued, the nursing school could flourish as a separate, focused entity, providing ample opportunity to forge future partnerships with the University of Texas Health Science Center and area health-care providers.

Yet, opponents said the location would conflict with the mission of the ACCD to provide access to education for low-income students and students of color by drawing attendance and community support from existing programs at St. Philip's and SAC. Furthermore, a campus at the Medical Center would require the ACCD to purchase land as well as new buildings. Between those costs and the new Northeast campus, the bond focused 70 percent of its funding on the North Side.

Opponents asked the ACCD board to consider building the campus downtown or on the East Side adjacent St. Philip's, a long-underdeveloped area where the ACCD already owns land. The latter site would allow ACCD to use existing infrastructure - such as lunch rooms and childcare services - for its expanded nursing program. It would also provide students in downtown medical facilities with convenient access to the program, as well as students from the city's East, West, and South sides, which comprise 80 percent of ACCD's enrollment.

The board rejected both of those suggestions, saying that the St. Philip's property was too small and developing downtown would be too expensive. The South Texas Medical Foundation would lease a 20-acre lot at the Medical Center for $5 million over 99 years.

At the beginning of June, the ACCD board appointed a citizens' committee to create a proposal for the next bond issue. Its members represent entities in the community, health, and business sectors, including University Health System Board Chairman Dr. Robert Jimenez, who opposed building the nursing school at the Medical Center because, he said, downtown "has the largest array of health services in Bexar County and ... provides the easiest access to students." Luis Vera, attorney for the League of United Latin American Citizens, is also on the committee. After the last failed bond election, Vera reportedly called for ACCD Chancellor Terence Kelly's resignation because, Vera said, he had ignored community leaders' and ACCD faculty's recommendations for the location of the nursing school.

The citizen's committee met for the first time on Saturday and determined that it will allow the public to attend future meetings and will work toward presenting the bond for a November election. To meet this deadline, the committee must present a bond proposal to the board by August 1. "It will be a challenge to review all the issues in that tight schedule," says Dan Naranjo, attorney and facilitator for the citizens' committee, "but the committee wants to keep the process as open to the public as possible. They know that the only way to pass a bond is to make sure the public understands all of its elements. Knowledge of the process will hopefully bring support."

Naranjo says the committee will meet at 4 p.m. Wednesday, June 22, to review the ACCD administration's new bond proposal and hear from the presidents of each of the district's colleges. The next scheduled meeting is 4 p.m. Wednesday, June 29. Meetings are held at the Killen Center, 201 W. Sheridan.

COPS/Metro has declined to join the Citizens' Committee.

"We didn't think it was necessary to be a part of the committee," said Mike Philips, spokesman for COPS/Metro. "Our position is clear and is supported by both the ACCD faculty and administration. We asked to speak to the board, but they are not going to talk to anyone until after the committee has come to a conclusion, so we decided to get a position out there."

At press time, the ACCD administration had not returned calls from the Current requesting a copy of its new bond proposal. The Express-News reported that ACCD Vice Chancellor Federico Zaragoza has revealed only that the ACCD administration's bond would be very similar to the previous bond, but would expand the district's nursing and allied health programs at existing campuses, rather than building a central campus on the North Side.

Similarly, the bond COPS/Metro proposes would double the nursing and allied health programming at the four existing campuses, limiting all ACCD nursing training to St. Philip's and SAC. Otherwise, it leaves in place all other elements of the previous one, including improvements to the four existing campuses and construction of a Northeast campus. Their proposed bond also divides funds throughout the city: St. Philip's $67 million, SAC $74 million, Palo Alto $57 million, Northwest Vista $93 million, Northeast campus $125 million, and $19 million for other district initiatives.

The ACCD needs to expand its nursing programs. According to Alamo WorkSource, the number of individual health-care facilities makes it difficult to quantify the nursing shortage in San Antonio. However, Texas Workforce Commission projects a 32.5 percent growth in registered nursing positions for the Alamo Region by 2012. Nationally, the U.S. Department of Labor says that more than 1 million new and replacement nurses will be needed by 2012, a faster growth than all other occupations. ACCD spokesman Leo Zuniga says its nursing programs are producing 525 registered and licensed nurses annually. Programs at St. Philip's and SAC are at or over capacity, with 1,630 students enrolled and 800 more on a waiting list.

Yet, says Zuniga, there is more at stake than the nursing program. ACCD enrollment is 52,000, and it is expected to increase to 65,000 in the next five years.

"Palo Alto was built for 2,500 students," he says. "Now there are 9,000 students. We have students sitting on the floor." At St. Philip's, the law-enforcement program's physical training takes place in the parking lot and class time is spent in "an old house off campus."

Ultimately, the ACCD board has final authority to determine how the bond is spent and when it will be presented to the voters. Board members declined to speak to the Current, passing messages through ACCD administration that they would opt "to stay out of it" until the citizens' committee makes its recommendations and that any guess as to when a bond might be put to a vote would be "sheer speculation."

In the meantime, COPS/Metro hopes their message is getting through to the taciturn board.

"Listen to the community. If the community is not totally in agreement, the board risks losing the bond altogether. The Northeast Side nursing school is a lightning rod for failure," says Lohan. "We advise the board not to try to sneak anything else into the bond - the community is watching." `See related stories "That would be a N.O.," February 10-16, 2005 and "East Side loses again, " January 6-12, 2005`

By Susan Pagani

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