Governor Champions Rural Education

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Gov. Janet Napolitano is making good on her promise to include funding for Gila Community College in next year's budget, according to Steve Besich, deputy county manager.

"I fully expect to receive our appropriate and fair share," Besich told the Roundup this week.

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Gov. Napolitano

Gila County has engaged in a running battle with state officials and the legislature ever since funding was cut off when the county formed a provisional community college district. The district was formed after severing a 34-year relationship with Eastern Arizona College in 2002.

State law mandates rural counties that don't meet minimum size and tax base requirements to form provisional districts. The legislature, however, has passed a bill blocking those districts from receiving most sources of funding.

After pursuing the matter with the legislature to no avail, county and community college officials turned to Napolitano's office for help last April.

At that time, they were told nothing could be done for the current fiscal year, but that GCC would be included in budget planning for the 2005-06 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

Besich recently met with George Cunningham, Napolitano's deputy chief of staff, and was told the process is under way.

If the budget is approved, the money the county will receive from the state will be based on the number of full-time student enrollment, an amount Besich expects to be in excess of the $325,000 received last year via a special appropriation. While the special appropriation was a one-time only measure, making it a line-item in the budget means the college can count on long-term funding, according to Cunningham.

"(The special appropriation) was not formularized, and what Gila County was legitimately concerned about when they met here was that they weren't yet in the budget book," he said. "We told them we would try to do it for next year, and the governor wanted to keep her commitment.

"The governor is pleased that Gila County can join the family of counties that offer their residents a community college district."

Cunningham also confirmed that the amount the county will receive is likely to exceed the special appropriation of $325,000.

"The estimate is for 291 full-time students," he said. "That's $274,600 of operating and $61,100 of capital, making a total of $335,700. The governor's budget will be released in mid-January, and this will be a piece of it."

The county is also working with its state legislators, particularly District Five Rep. Bill Konopnicki, to recover other funding sources lost when the county formed a provisional district.

"We've been pursuing some things with Rep. Konopnicki that will address workforce development money, and that could mean at least another $205,000 per year for our college," Besich said.

But immediate funding is just part of the issue, and Besich praised Napolitano's long-term commitment to education in general, and community colleges in particular.

Currently under discussion, according to Besich, is the formation of a "seamless" state-wide community college system that will eliminate provisional districts altogether.

Because of the support the college is now receiving from both the governor and the legislature, Besich said the county can now focus on education rather than confrontation.

"People appear to be more interested in helping us now," he said. "It's like anything else: if it's worth doing it takes some hard work, and it's as much about us educating (the legislature) as it is (about) them doing things."

GCC President Barbara Ganz praised Besich for his effort.

"He has worked very, very hard for the success of the college district, and the college district and its board owe him a debt of gratitude for all he has done," she said.

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