Law Nixes College Control

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Gasps of disbelief sputtered from the two-dozen Payson community members who filled the left side of House Hearing Room 1 as the 14 members of the House Appropriations Committee decided the fate of Gila Community College Monday afternoon.

The committee voted in favor of House Bills 2079 and 2105 -- ostensibly wrangling local control of Gila Community College while shoveling more tax burden on Gila County and its citizens.

"It's bulls***," said local radio personality Dan Haapala as he stormed out of the Capitol.

If HBs 2079 and 2105 pass a house vote, possibly next week, Gila County taxpayers and their property taxes -- voted in 2002 to support the provisional community college district -- could pick up the tab for out-of-county tuition, taken out of the county's general fund.

"It's taxation without representation," said Gila Community College board member, Dr. Larry Stephenson.

Rep. Bill Konopnicki, a Republican from rural Arizona, said now he'll work on changing the wording of the bills before they reach the floor -- a move that could help GCC keep its autonomy and money in taxpayers' pockets.

"We need to focus on being able to have our own control, our own tax base and no out-of-county tuition," said Konopnicki.

And out-of-county tuition isn't cheap; before the provisional community college district was in place, these costs drained the county's general fund.

For instance, Glendale Community College, which operates under Maricopa County's community college district, charges its own residents $55 per unit.

Without the provisional college district in Payson, students will still pay roughly the same tuition, however, the county will pick up the out-of-county tuition difference -- in this case $165 per unit. For a class load of 12 units, that's nearly $2,000 per student, per semester out of the county's general fund.

Konopnicki questioned the legality of HBs 2079 and 2105 -- an issue that could be challenged as the bill moves toward the governor's desk.

"Can a handful of legislators override the will of the people?" said Konopnicki. "The bottom line is the citizens of Gila County deserve a secondary education."

Konopnicki, during his testimony yesterday, argued that a provisional community college is Gila County's best option for educational self-reliance.

In a county, Konopnicki said, with only 3 percent of its land in private control, the possibility of collecting enough property taxes to support a full-fledged community college is slim.

And according to the new law, it's impossible. HB 2079 changes the legal requirements of organizing a community college by deleting the population criterion -- 40,000 persons 15 and under based on the previous census -- while it raises the district's assessed valuation requirement from $448 million to $600 million.

Gila County's assessed valuation for 2003-2004 was little more than $347 million. Compare that to Maricopa County's $28 billion assessed valuation.

If you're wondering why big-city legislators -- like HB 2079's sponsor, Republican Laura Knaperek of Tempe or Phoenix's John Allen, the author of 2105 -- are concerned about a county whose population couldn't even fill Sun Devil Stadium, you're not alone.

"Seems to me like we're picking on this county," said rancher-cum-representative, Jack Brown who voted no on both pieces of legislation. "Let them have their community college and let them decide what they want to do with it."

Appropriations Committee vice-chair, Rep. Lucy Mason (R - Dist. 1) who voted yes on 2079 and against 2105, the bill that singularly repeals the provisional community college district, said if there were problems with the provisional college arrangement, they should have been addressed by Rep. Allen, the bill's sponsor.

"We have a Maricopa County representative going after an issue that isn't even in his district," said Mason. "This is the only provisional community college district in the state. If he had a problem he should've gone to the representatives first."

"The provisional district is a progression toward disaster," said Allen. "They do not have the tax base to do that."

Allen's concerns centered around the $325,000 in state aid Gila Community College will receive from its full-time student equivalents or FTSEs. Educational institutions secure state funding based on an institution's FTSEs, a convoluted formula of students and hours enrolled during a semester.

But Barbara Ganz, president of GCC, said the state aid isn't an issue. GCC would get state aid regardless of which college was running the show.

"It doesn't matter whose name is on the check," said Ganz. "It's the same amount of money."

Ganz and her contingent of supporters have work to do before the bills hit the house floor sometime next week.

"We answer the telephones," said Sarah Nelson GCC's director of community and noncredit programs. "People are starting to call in -- asking whether we're still here."

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