Governor's Office Stalls Local College Funding

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Despite being turned away by Governor Janet Napolitano's office, Gila County officials vow to continue the fight for a share of the money Arizona allocates to community colleges.

Because Gila County is classified as a provisional community college district based on its size and tax base, the state has cut off all funding. Mean-while, Graham County, where Eastern Arizona College is located, is receiving $9 million in 2004 -- including $1.6 million for 931 Gila County students who no longer attend EAC.

After pursuing the matter with the state Legislature to no avail, county officials recently met with top officials from the governor's office.

"We met with Alan Stephens, one of the co-chiefs of staff, and George Cunningham, who is basically the director of budget operations," Steve Besich, deputy manager for Gila County, said.

"We basically had prepared for them and walked them through a ton of information."

That information was introduced by a four-page letter from Besich to Napolitano. In it, he explained that the county was told by the State Community College Board to form a provisional district to address the issue of having to pay almost $1 million in out-of-county tuition to EAC.

The State Community College Board was subsequently dissolved by the legislature, leaving Gila County officials with a promise that neither the legislature nor the governor's office is willing to honor.

"The state is now double funding students who do not exist in the Graham County budget ...," Besich wrote. "We are not making a case for or against anyone's funding. We only want to be treated equally and fairly under the law."

According to Gila County Manager John Nelson, who also attended the meeting, Cunningham and Stephens were not encouraging.

"What the governor's staff said to us is that when the state of Arizona came to us with the idea of a provisional community college system, they may have had wonderful intentions," Nelson said. "But the state of Arizona in implementing the provisional community college system screwed it up. Therefore the state of Arizona can't help us. That's exactly what they said. They said the law is the law, and we're going to follow the law, and you get no funding."

The response, Nelson noted, is not what he expected from a governor who has made education a priority.

"Gila County is not on her list for funding next year," he said, "but Eastern Arizona College gets all this money. The education governor thinks that's correct according to the law. Do you think there's a problem there?"

Stephens and Cunningham were in meetings all day Thursday, but Jeanine L'Ecuyer, the governor's press secretary, said Stephens took exception to Nelson's characterization of the meeting.

"What he remembers is letting Mr. Nelson know that the statute does need clarification and that it's something the governor is certainly willing to look into as we get into the next legislative session," L'Ecuyer said.

Coupled with recent defeats in legislative appropriations committees, Besich, Nelson, and Legislative Liaison Lionel Martinez are becoming increasingly frustrated.

"Now that we have no state board, we find ourselves bouncing from one place to another," Besich said. "All we want is what we were told and what we relied upon -- not one penny more, not one penny less."

Besich said the county has tried to be reasonable and to follow protocol.

"We basically said we can disagree without being disagreeable, but we are not going to go away," he said. "We've made our case with facts, not rhetoric."

While still hoping for help from the governor next year, the county also is pursuing other options -- including legal action.

"We're not in the habit of threatening to sue people," Besich said. "If we're going to sue them, we sue them. We're going to do our homework and make a responsible recommendation to the supervisors and to the governing board."

One thing Gila County taxpayers can count on is the resolve of the three county officials:

"Our board is not going to settle for anything less than educating our kids," Nelson said.

"To accept anything less is to acquiesce to something that is illegal, discriminatory, and just flat-(out) unfair," Besich said.

"There will be a next step," Martinez said.

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