College Weighs Suing State

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County officials met Tuesday afternoon to consider suing the state over funding for Gila County's community colleges and to express their displeasure over the level of support the county is receiving from its state legislators on the issue.

The meeting, a joint session of the Gila County Board of Supervisors and the Gila County Provisional Community College District Board of Directors, was held at the Payson campus of GCC.

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Gila County Supervisor Cruz Salas addresses a joint meeting of the supervisors and the community college district board. "The bottom line is that our three representatives have totally sold us down the river because of outside influences," Salas said.

In a detailed presentation, Gila County Manager John Nelson and Legislative Liaison Lionel Martinez traced the entire history of community college funding in Arizona.

"Only six of 14 counties meet the requirements to be regular community college districts," he said. "Of the eight that don't, four are grandfathered in. That leaves four counties that are prevented from providing post-secondary education to their kids."

Because Gila County is classified as a provisional district, the state has cut all funding. While the four rural counties that are grandfathered in as regular community college districts (Cochise, Graham, Navajo and Yuma/La Paz) are receiving $11 million in state aid, Gila County and the four rural counties that are grandfathered out (Apache, Gila, Greenlee and Santa Cruz) are receiving no state aid.

Following the presentation, the county supervisors criticized what they perceive as a lack of support for Gila County.

"I've attended meetings with our members of the legislature (Rep. Jake Flake, Rep. Bill Konopnicki, and Sen. Jack Brown) and we have not been treated with respect," said Supervisor Cruz Salas. "The bottom line is that our three representatives have totally sold us down the river because of outside influences."

Salas was referring in part to the three legislators' support of SB1105, signed by Gov. Janet Napolitano May 26. That bill prevents provisional community college districts from receiving several types of state aid.

Supervisor Ron Christensen was also critical of the three legislators.

"The Gila County Community College system is somewhat treated like the hemorrhoid on the colon of the education system of Arizona," Christensen said. "They don't even give us back the dollars we put into the system, so our work is cut out for us."

Peter Kettner, chairperson of the community college board, reinforced the views of the supervisors.

"Our board also met with these three legislators and we had the same experience," Kettner said. "We were treated with a great deal of disrespect. They told us with a great deal of glee that Graham County is grandfathered in so you'll never touch them. We left the meeting feeling really quite discouraged. They essentially said to us, ‘We're the Graham County legislators.'"

The supervisors were especially critical of recent radio appearances on local talk shows by the three legislators.

"When they go on the radio in Gila County and say that this board and this staff did not do their homework, it's just a flat lie," Salas said. "I'm very disappointed."

The presentation also emphasized that the residents of the four counties grandfathered out are significantly poorer and less educated than the rest of the state, and that their populations are made up of 65 percent minorities compared to a state average of 36 percent.

"I'll play the damn minority card, because I'm very upset at our legislature," Martinez said. "This is a burden on Gila County and I lay that at the feet of Jack Brown and Jake Flake for letting that go on for so long. We can ride the educational bus as long as we stay in the back."

Nelson put it another way.

"Basically what they told us, and this is pretty much a quote, is ‘you're too small and you're too poor,'" he said. "Sometimes I wonder if that's not a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Nelson pointed out that the state legislature is currently in special session trying to find more money for prisons and closed his presentation with a quote from Mark Twain:

"Every time you stop a school, you have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It's like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won't fatten the dog."

Martinez blamed Maricopa and Pima county legislators for sneaking the wording into SB1105 that excludes provisional community college districts from sources of state funding.

"Any time a provisional district is formed, Maricopa and Pima work behind the scenes because they reason that if we get money, they're taking a hit," he said. "I don't have films or pictures or recordings of it, but I'd bet my bottom dollar they're behind it. I know it."

Following the public portion of the meeting, the two groups retired to executive session for legal advice.

Wednesday, Martinez said that no specific announcement came out of that session.

"They are going to let the process take its course," he said, "but they're holding open the option of filing suit against the state."

Flake, Konopnicki and Brown responded forcefully to the charges Thursday.

"I am extremely sorry that especially Cruz Salas has that kind of opinion of us," Flake said, "and I don't know when, ever, that I have met with Cruz that I haven't shown him total respect as a supervisor and as a leader in Gila County. I'd like to remind him of the many times (the three of us) have stuck up for Gila County, including getting the second million dollars for the Payson campus."

Flake said suing the state would be a mistake.

"If it comes to them suing for the equalization money, it would be the total demise of two other colleges in our district," he said. "If they sue for that, there would be a fight just to remove equalization money altogether."

Konopnicki agreed.

"There are three of us versus 90 total -- and most of them are from Maricopa County," he said. "I think there's even a bigger jeopardy if the suit comes forward; I think we could lose provisional colleges totally.

"They are a provisional district, not a full-fledged district and I'm really tired of explaining that over and over and over again," Konopnicki said. "They don't meet the population requirements. They don't meet the assessed valuation. They can't afford it. The state of Arizona can't afford it. I don't how to make it any clearer."

Brown said he resents the county threatening to play the race card.

"I flat deny that," Brown said. "I've been in this legislature for long, long years and I've never had anybody accuse me of anything like that before. I've represented those same people for many, many years, and I know how I've treated people. I hope we don't make enemies out of one another, because we're all working for the same thing. I'm working hard, hard to see if we can't get a program that will work in Gila County."

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