College Civil War Rages

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Ron Christensen, sat alone at the head of an empty conference table.

Four other members of the college's board of governors were scheduled to join him the following Monday to hammer out the details of a lawsuit settlement that has been simmering for two years.

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Ron Christensen

But Christensen, Gila County Community College Board of Governors chairman, didn't get the meeting he'd hoped for.

Instead, he pored over bad news for northern Gila County.

For in his hand, he clutched the latest version of the lawsuit settlement contract between Gila Community College and Eastern Arizona College.

"I won't sign it," Christensen said. "It emasculates the governing board."

The settlement would indeed end a two-year litigation between, Eastern Arizona College and Gila County Community College, but it will also terminate GCC's contract with its current educational provider, Pima County Community College District.

And the new contract does more than just blunt the governing board's authority, it essentially erases all traces of Pima Community College's oversight, putting EAC in total control of all college functions, including staffing, administration and educational services.

"EAC is trying to turn the clock back to about 2000," board member Larry Stephenson said.

Back then, GCC operated under the auspices of EAC.

The college had an advisory committee, Stephenson said, that counseled EAC on educational matters, but EAC was under no legal obligation to follow those suggestions.

As the student population grew, out-of-county tuition paid to EAC drained Gila County's general fund.

Then in 2002, voters approved a provisional community college district and a property tax levy to fund the district.

The formation of that district mandated the election of a governing board, vesting it with the same administrative powers as a full-fledged community college district.

After severing ties over litigation with EAC, GCC entered into an educational service-provider contract with Tucson-based Pima Community College.

Now, three years later, southern Gila County has gone around northern Gila County members of GCC's governing board and brokered a deal with Gila County Manager John Nelson, Eastern Arizona College, and attorneys for both sides in Phoenix.

"It's in EAC's best interest to settle the lawsuit because if they settle they have to pay a million dollars," said GCC President Barbara Ganz, "But they get it back in reimbursements."

The revised settlement contract renders GCC's governing board, for all intents and purposes, powerless, and Pima Community College obsolete in Gila County.

"The contract is written lopsided," said Stephenson. "That puts incredible demands and constraints on the district."

The settlement includes two documents: one which delineates the rights and responsibilities of GCC, Gila County and EAC, and the second establishes EAC's terms and conditions for providing educational services.

To make a long contract short, GCC must grant EAC exclusive rights to provide all educational services and programs in Payson.

To do this, EAC proposed a "One Team" approach to managing college operations.

In effect, the EAC contract dissolves partnerships with other institutions, such as Rio Salado Community College -- which offers GCC's registered nursing degree.

Other programs that could suffer are GCC's emergency medical training and certified nursing assistant programs not offered through Pima Community College, but other service providers.

District 1 Gila County Supervisor Tommie Cline Martin in a written statement yesterday, questioned the clauses that would break these educational partnerships.

"All of these are new offerings and are made possible locally only through this ability to ‘partner' and would not be available today (under the proposed contract)," Cline wrote. "I believe it is the clear intent ... to allow EAC...the right of veto of educational programs requested by the Gila Board of Governors, and additionally to prevent the Gila Board of Governors from then obtaining those services elsewhere."

John Nelson, Gila County manager countered, saying that agreements with partnering institutions aren't administered through Pima Community College, but GCC's board of governors, and are open to negotiation based on the students' needs when and if GCC falls under EAC control.

"The contracts would have to be moved to EAC," Nelson said.

But perhaps even more dire for northern Gila County's post-secondary educational community is the clause that states:

"GILA (community college) shall not employ any faculty or staff to deliver education services and programs in Gila County ... EAC shall be solely responsible for the hiring, firing and evaluation of all faculty and staff providing educational services and programs..."

Shirley Dawson, District 3 county supervisor said that ostensibly, anyone employed by Pima or Gila community colleges would be out of job if EAC takes over.

But the intent of this clause, said Dawson, is to standardize employment contracts -- some college personnel are employed by Pima, while others receive their paychecks from GCC.

"Right now, we have a fragmented way of doing business," Dawson said. "Current faculty can reapply for jobs and I don't see any major difficulties. (EAC) will be seeking faculty members."

According to the contract though, EAC won't be obligated to rehire any employees working for Pima or GCC.

"They can put people into those positions who will be loyal to them," said Ganz. "In the wording of the EAC proposal, it doesn't mention my position, but it mentions that they can't employ or contract anyone that will interfere with their process."

To strike a compromise, Stephenson proposed what he called a hybrid solution.

Building on the existing partnering infrastructure, Stephenson suggested allowing southern Gila County to have its own educational provider, while northern Gila County maintains its agreement with Pima Community College.

"The areas are far enough apart where there wouldn't be any competition," Stephenson said. "It would require a little more administration, but it's a good option."

And according to the Arizona Revised Statutes, Stephenson's solution is also legally feasible because community college governing boards, according to ARS can, "adopt policies in a public forum to offer programs that meet the educational needs of the population served by the community college."

Ganz agreed.

"I think it merits very serious discussion," she said. "I think it's possible."

The economic feasibility of Stephenson's plan, however, is another story.

Nelson said the breadth of services the county offers to its citizens in Payson and Globe is already a huge burden.

"It's not possible financially," Nelson said. "We are doing something that no other county does. We duplicate services in the north and in the south."

Meanwhile, to seal the deal, Gila County, EAC and GCC's governing board must come to an agreement and sign the settlement.

The problem is, the board of governors has not been able to sit in the same room and smooth out the details among themselves.

Neither board member, Bob Ashford of Globe, nor Christensen can seem to wrangle the three signatures required by law to hold a special meeting.

And so, while each end of the county struggles to secure a quorum, meeting after meeting has been cancelled and rescheduled.

"They'll come to Payson whether they want to or not," said Christensen. "I want the people of my constituencies to be heard."

Bob Ashford has not responded to interview requests for this story.

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