GONZALES — Every seat in the house was full, with citizens spilling into the lobby of city hall last Thursday night as supporters of Victoria College-Gonzales Center (VC) showed up to stand behind higher education. It was a scene not often seen in the usually staid council chambers.
Of interest was a called workshop, innocently worded to “discuss, consider, and possible action regarding the exploration of options available for future higher education opportunities in Gonzales...to initiate and engage in necessary discussions and bring potential options back to the city council for consideration.”
Many residents read that to mean a direct attack on their institution of hometown higher education.
At issue was a lease agreement between VC and the city. The college currently pays rent of $1 per year to bring workforce training classrooms to the old city-owned armory building and a former used car lot used for welding and HVAC classes. Mayor Connie Kacir came loaded for bear as she moved the workshop to the start of the meeting, expecting a long evening of discussion between herself and those assembled.
Kacir believed that it was high time for the college to step up after 11 years of partnership and begin making lease payments to the city, something that she stressed was being asked out of fiscal responsibility to the city.
The mayor said that when VC arrived in 2007 that it was designed to be financially solvent sometime in the future. And if it didn't work with them, other colleges such as Blinn in Brenham and Austin Community College could be contacted to take over the facility. Kacir said that a municipality does not legally have to provide for an institution of higher education, but that Gonzales leaders had seen value in the prospect and had been generous with over $2 million injected into VC by the city over the past decade.
Does the city want a college in town, Kacir asked? Yes. But do they want to be the only ones to partner with the college? No, because the city currently does not have the revenue to support them. Thus, she was looking for them to help pull their own weight, either through a new contract where VC brings more money to the table through added maintenance obligations, or an outright increase in their yearly lease.
Kacir presented numbers, stating that in meetings she had with VC officials that the school operated with a deficit of $400,000-750,000 per year.
“As a business model, this is not defining success,” she said.
The mayor expressed her desire to keep the college open here, but wanted them to meet the city with a 50-50 agreement on capital expenditures on the building and grounds. In searching for other educational options that could operate there, she mentioned bringing in a firefighting academy. Gonzales Fire Chief Keith Schmidt was called to speak on the proposal, in which he expressed much excitement in having such here. Grant moneys could be obtained to build a joint training facility and fire station that the city desperately needs, he said.
“I am exercising every option I can think of,” Kacir said. “At this time I am out of options to offer.”
She added that she had not reached out to another college until three weeks ago to see about the possibility of another one coming here. She noted her frustration with VC President Dr. David Hinds, who she accused of lacking transparency in meetings that the city had conducted with VC officials.
“I'm spending your [citizens] tax dollars, and I want to do it wisely,” she said.
District 4 Councilman Dan Blakemore spoke up of his dealings with VC officials in the meetings. He said it was very important for the city to have a college, but that the city had gone way beyond what was reasonable, only to be shot down on every occasion in regards to negotiating a new contract. He took extra offense to what Hinds had told him, saying that the president said the college wanted the same deal that they had now, daring Blakemore to do something about it.
The mayor moved the discussion into the public comments section. Numerous residents spoke on the merits of VC, some concluding with applause from the gallery, with none rising to speak on finding another college to fill a void. VC Manager Jackie Mikesh rose to explain that the mayor had misunderstood the VC board's intentions. The reason that Hinds had been hands-off is because he was relying on her to work with council to hammer out a new lease.
“We've created jobs,” Mikesh stated. “We have the highest intention to continue this partnership. We will meet you [on negotiations] if you give us the opportunity.”
She was again met with applause.
District 3 Councilman Bobby O'Neal asked Mikesh if Hinds had spoken to the VC board about the situation. She replied that he has plans in the coming weeks to meet and discuss with them. The mayor said that what people needed to attend were the VC board meetings to express their feelings, and that the council had been working the past 14 months on a resolution to this with no outcome. Mikesh countered that she had only received a lease proposal from the city this past May and did what she could to add corrections and get it back to them two weeks later.
Blakemore took issue with all of the “red lines” marked through the lease, which were the corrections that Mikesh mentioned. He said it amounted to a rejection of the contract, while she said that it was merely a way for her to point out differences that needed to be addressed before a final copy was struck.
Blakemore questioned her about Hinds' rude insistence on keeping the previous lease, and Mikesh said that she got a different interpretation from their exchange at the meeting. Hinds in fact wanted to work toward an agreement.
“If you didn't take us seriously, that's not this council's fault,” Blakemore said. “Dr. Hinds has not come to us with any partnership at all.”
Mikesh said that for the past 11 years the college had a partnership with the city and always worked with them. She thought that they had met every benchmark that was asked of them.
Kacir asked how to explain the numbers that showed the college operating at a loss and demanded a partnership rooted in transparency. Mikesh said that their job is to serve the community at every cost and they have a mission from the state to serve this area.
At that point, the mayor concluded the open discussion and looked for a motion to hold a vote. Blakemore made a motion, and Kacir asked if any other councilman would second the motion. All three remaining councilmen remained silent as those assembled were equally as quiet, awaiting the next action.
Kacir announced that since the motion lacked a second, the item thus failed. It was greeted with loud applause from the gallery and into the lobby.
Editor's note: For more commentary from Gonzales Mayor Connie Kacir and VC Manager Jackie Mikesh, click here.