College Board Steps Back To Eac

Chairman threatens to quit over contract

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Between the character attacks, two hours of impassioned public testimony, and ongoing snide remarks by county and Globe officials, the college's governing board voted three to two to hand Gila Community College back to Eastern Arizona College.

And so, students of Gila Community College will spend one final semester with Pima Community College. As of this fall semester, GCC resumes its relationship with EAC.

photo

Tommie Martin

Three of the board members from the southern districts of the county out-voted and controlled the entire meeting.

It began soon after the pledge of allegiance ended when District 3 board member Mike Pastor leveled member Larry Stephenson's agenda item to present his compromise plan -- an alternative that would have given each GCC campus the option of contracting with the educational service provider of their choice.

"We don't have any of the information to review," Pastor said. "This is a completely new idea."

Stephenson agreed with Pastor, but implored the board to give him the professional courtesy to present his plan.

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Doyle Coffey

"We won't be able to reach a conclusion," Stephenson said. "But I would appreciate the board's indulgence to permit this concept."

Pastor, seconded by vice chairman Robert Ashford, tabled the discussion.

"When you table a motion, there is no further discussion," Board chairman Ron Christensen said.

During the ensuring public comment, where residents like Bing Brown and Hoyt Kenmore spoke, the three board members -- Pastor, Ashford and Bernadette Kniffin of the San Carlos Apache tribe -- turned deaf ears to more than two hours of public testimony, mostly in favor of retaining Pima.

Judy Baker, of the Mogollon Health Alliance, the organization that in part funded GCC's nursing curriculum, voiced concerns about where the $200,000 a year in grant money will end up.

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Don Crowley

"That will benefit all three campuses" Baker said. "(The program) will go away if the contract with EAC is signed."

After the public comment ended, Christensen made a motion to go into executive session to discuss the legalities of the proposed lawsuit settlement and 10-year contract, a stipulation of the settlement.

Pastor, Ashford and Kniffin sat stiff, and looked straight ahead as Christensen, to no avail, attempted to secure a quorum. Only Stephenson seconded.

Pastor then asked to skip the discussion entirely and hold a vote to accept the settlement and contract as-is. Ashford and Kniffin seconded.

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Judy Baker

At that point, deputy county attorney Bryan Chambers, stepped in and admonished the board to reconsider their decision.

"Based on what?" Pastor asked.

"I would not proceed without seeking legal advice," Chambers said.

And with that, the board withdrew their motion and went into executive session. Fifteen minutes later, the board emerged and voted to send Pima a 90-day notice of termination while giving the thumbs up to EAC's new operating contract and settling a three-year litigation between the colleges.

In the midst of the post-vote pandemonium, complete with tears, dirty looks and handshakes, Christensen announced to a packed room that he'd rather quit than sign the document he called "foolish" and not equal in this end of the county.

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Hoyt Kenmore

"With this board voting to accept the EAC contract as written, the board has just signed a blank check for the Gila County taxpayer to pay. I leave you with a heavy heart and great sadness. I say goodbye at this time," Christensen said as he smacked the gavel down, ending the meeting.

District 3 County Supervisor Shirley Dawson yelled over the din, questioning whether Christensen's statement was a resignation.

But, with furrowed brow, Christensen didn't answer. He collected his papers quietly and left the noisy group.

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Larry Stephenson

From the beginning

The history of Gila County and Eastern Arizona College is as long as the county's eastern border, and as jagged as the western Mazatzal range -- its politics are as different as the crags of the Mogollon Rim to the north, and the arid deserts of the south.

Before the provisional community college district was passed in 2002, GCC president Barbara Ganz said, EAC's contract with Gila County renewed every year. EAC would present a budget to the county board of supervisors, the supervisors in turn would nod in approval.

Ganz said state money flew over the county, over Payson and into EAC's pockets in Thatcher, and because GCC didn't have a district at the time, EAC wasn't obligated to report any financial information to GCC.

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Mike Pastor

According to Doyle Coffey, a member and chairman of the college's pre-district advisory committee for nearly two decades, this practice went on for more than 35 years.

"EAC was so dominant you could hardly do anything unless EAC was in on it," Coffey said.

And then Proposition 400 was introduced and passed by Gila County voters in 2002. The bill created the provisional community college district, and according to Coffey, the county and new college board started asking questions about financial data, putting pressure on EAC to account for their expenditures and revenues.

"They'd charge us out-of-county tuition, and then they'd get the FTSE money too," Coffey said.

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Bing Brown

FTSE, or full-time student equivalency, is a formula the state uses to dole out money to colleges.

Gila Community College provisional college district, by law Ganz said, is not entitled to most state aid, just FTSE money, and because FTSE money is retroactive two years, GCC won't start receiving it until this year.

"This district, since its inception has been running on local taxes and tuition and fees," Ganz said.

Pima Community College, she added, encourages degree-seeking students by cutting a tuition deal for those going full time.

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Bryan Chambers

On the other hand, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee's 2005 appropriations report, EAC pockets about $8 million from the state alone in equalization aid -- money paid only to rural community colleges to keep them competitive with urban districts -- and FTSE dollars. In 2004, EAC counted 2,500 FTSEs, which works out to about $3,200 each.

With this money, EAC can offer free enrichment classes to seniors and discounted tuition for part-time students.

"(Rural community colleges) provide services to the seniors, which is great and we applaud them for that," Ashford said during Friday's meeting. "They don't charge back to the county or anyone else."

The county doesn't directly pay --he taxpayer does.

"We've not only taken care of our own, we've taken care of others," Brown said during testimony. "It's economic blackmail."

Gila County residents now and for years have doled out their property taxes at a .63-cent rate. Prop. 400 didn't create a new tax levy, it merely moved the existing tax from a secondary source of funding to a primary, which can be designated for a specific cost, in this case, the provisional community college district.

"Now we get the money," Ganz said. "And our board has the responsibility of how it is spent."

The tax generates about $2.1 million a year, and this is, including about $378,000 in tuition and fees, on which Gila Community College operates.

Without a budget attached to the settlement agreement, many are calling the new contract a blank check. According to Ganz, Gila County residents will continue to pay this tax revenue, but EAC absorbs it, and continues to take in their state aid.

EAC can spend this money with impunity because without a budget, and with all financial, personnel and administrative decisions approved by the senior dean of the college, as stated in the contract, the current board of governors has little input or influence in the decision-making process.

"What's going to happen is going to be what's in the contract and only what's in the contract," Christensen said. "We can't do anything."

Under the Arizona Revised Statutes, community college governing boards are granted broad powers to provide the educational services needed in their district. The statutes do not grant this power to one individual, EAC's senior dean, as the new contract calls for.

The contract

Don Crowley of Citizens For Better Payson Government and Christensen have been outspoken about the contract's legality. Crowley's attorneys are investigating the board's conduct in its formulating the contract, and seeks to uncover open-meeting law violations.

Meanwhile, the other part of the contract involves the settlement of the three-year lawsuit between EAC, GCC and Gila County. EAC will compensate $1 million in damages to GCC over five years. The payments are staggered in increments of $200,000 a year. If EAC or GCC terminates the contract, EAC keeps the remaining balance.

Furthermore, EAC stipulated in the contract, that they are to occupy all of GCC's facilities while GCC pays the rent, and any damage to or maintenance on the property is GCC's responsibility, not EAC's.

"I'll lease your house for a dollar a year, and I'll buy the furniture and remodel it," Christensen said. "But you're going to pay me to live there, and then I'm going to charge you for letting me live there."

Christensen said he's exploring his legal options --f he can better serve this cause as a private citizen, he'll do so.

"I cannot see where I can be effective (on this board)," he said.

If Christensen resigns, he hands the gavel to vice chairman Ashford, who along, with Pastor and Kniffin serve as a unified front against northern Gila County board member, Larry Stephenson and whoever the county superintendent of schools appoints to the board.

"Those three would become puppets for EAC," Christensen said. "Mr. Ashford is a bully. He has tried to circumvent President (Barbara) Ganz at every opportunity."

Monday, the county board of supervisors ratified the college board's decision. District 1 Supervisor Tommie Cline Martin said she would support the outcome of the governing board's vote, but added, "that wouldn't have been the decision I'd have made."

The board of governors regular meeting will be held at 9:30 a.m., Thursday, April 14. Board members and the public will be participating by interactive television set up in GCC's three locations: Payson, Globe and San Carlos.

To take part, go to the community room at GCC on Mud Springs Road.

College timeline

1968 - Eastern Arizona College begins providing educational services in Gila County.

January 2000 - GCC campus moved from a strip mall storefront to its new campus on Mud Springs Road. EAC is still in charge; no provisional community college district.

June 2002 - EAC contract up for renegotiation. Gila County proposes two stipulations in the upcoming contract, making EAC accountable for their expenditures.

July 1, 2002 - Deadline to renew EAC contract passes. EAC says Gila County owes it money, Gila County says EAC owes it money.

July 2, 2002 - EAC and Gila County sever 34-year relationship

August 2002 - GCC signs on with Pima Community College

November 2002 - Voters pass Prop. 400 to fund new provisional community college district; college governing board becomes a legal and binding entity.

September 2003 - First classes with Pima Community College begin.

October 2003 - County files lawsuit against EAC.

April 8, 2005 - GCC governing board votes 3-2 to drop Pima college and return to EAC.

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