County, Eac Face Contract Deadline

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A provisional community college district is slated for the Gila County ballot.

Voters will be asked to approve the formation of the district when they go to the polls in the November general election.

The creation of such a district would mean that Gila County no longer has to pay out-of-county tuition to other counties, reducing the operating budget of Eastern Arizona College by about $250,000.

Because Gila County does not meet state requirements to form a regular community college district, it currently contracts with Eastern Arizona College in Graham County to operate campuses in Globe and Payson.

Even if county voters elect to form a provisional district, the county must still contract with an existing community college district to provide instructional and student services.

"Eastern Arizona College currently gets two payments from Gila County," John Nelson, Gila County finance director, said. "One is an administrative services fee for running our college, and I think that's fair. The other is the out-of-county tuition. Since we are not a provisional community college district yet, we have to pay for all of our students who go to another county for services."

In addition to the $250,000 paid to Graham County, Maricopa County receives about $300,000 from Gila County. Several other counties receive lesser amounts.

"(Graham County) would have to increase their tax rate or reduce their budget a little, as would Maricopa County, as would Yavapai County, as would all the counties we are paying out-of-county tuition to," Nelson said. "Personally, I'm more concerned with the Gila County taxpayer than I am with the Graham County taxpayer."

Gila County is one of four Arizona counties that do not meet state requirements to form a regular community college district. The other counties are Apache, Greenlee and Santa Cruz.

According to state law, counties must meet two requirements to form a regular community college district:

Have a minimum primary assessed valuation of $584,509,000.

Have a minimum population of 40,000 residents who are 15 or more years of age.

"We don't meet either one, and each year those thresholds increase," Nelson said. "In the foreseeable future, we would never meet them; probably in the unforeseeable future, we would never meet them."

The only reason Graham County has a regular community college district is that it was formed before the state thresholds were in place.

"They were grandfathered in," Nelson said.

Deadlines loom on new contract

Meanwhile, deadlines loom as negotiations continue between Gila County and Eastern Arizona College on a new one-year contract to operate the Globe and Payson campuses.

"(County Administrator) Steve (Besich) and I met with the dean from Gila Pueblo (Margo Braccamonte) Monday about some changes we made to the standard agreement we'd been signing every year," Nelson said. Those changes include:

Reserving $125,000 for the Gila County Community College Advisory Committee to use for audits, master plans and other expenses.

A clause stipulating that monies collected in Gila County stay here in the event that the county and EAC ever part ways.

EAC President Mark Bryce says he doesn't understand why the county is trying to change the agreement between the two entities especially at this late date.

"All we've done is offer them the same contract we've always had plus a modest increase ...," Bryce said. "We submitted that contract to them for their review in March to be on their April meeting schedule. Essentially we've had no communication from them until a couple of weeks ago when we were placed on the agenda and not told that we were on the agenda."

By state law, a new contract must be in place by July 1, a deadline Bryce said will be difficult to meet.

"The state board of directors of community colleges need to approve the contract prior to that date, and they have a meeting June 21," he said. "So we're getting real close here."

Nelson said that Bryce has contacted Supervisor Cruz Salas, board chairman, to discuss the county's proposal. In the meantime, the county unilaterally extended the present contract by one month to cover the summer schedule a move that Bryce questioned.

"Anybody who knows anything about contracts knows that you do not unilaterally extend a contract," he said. "Two people have to extend the contract."

As the process unfolds, rumors abound that one or more of EAC's Gila County campuses could be shut down if an agreement is not reached. The rumors have been fueled by letters sent to all full-time EAC employees in Gila County informing them that their contracts will not be renewed unless an agreement is signed with the county that fully funds the operation.

An EAC-Payson spokesperson said such a letter is required by law 30 days prior to employee contract renewals. Both sides expressed a desire to avoid layoffs or closures.

"The last thing the board of supervisors wants to do is shut these community colleges down, but it takes two parties to agree to something," Nelson said. "I think our changes to the contract are very reasonable."

Bryce said EAC's position is to do what the citizens of Gila County want.

"We're in the business of education not the business of politics," he said. "We've done nothing to cause any dissension or problems."

Both sides also agree that time is short. Consideration of the contract is on the agenda of Tuesday's supervisors' meeting in Globe.

"This is going to turn one way or another in a very short time," Bryce said. "We've tried to be open; we've tried to be available."

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