Gila Community College began positioning its pawns in what could be a political chess game intended to win independence and equal funding.
A strategy session in Globe last Thursday brought together college and county officials, along with a legislative liaison, to strategize how to more than double the college’s funding.
“We’ve been a provisional district for awhile now,” said board member Larry Stephenson. “I think it’s time to move on.”
Although the meeting yielded little concrete progress, it marked the beginning of a high stakes match, which many hope will culminate with Gila County’s college gaining accreditation and control over its decisions.
The meeting was perhaps symbolic with all the players sitting in the same room instead of using interactive television that allows board members in Payson and Globe to talk with one another.
In the end, officials informally decided they needed to hire a consultant to devise a professional plan, to both outline for themselves the necessary steps and to also gather support among legislators. The idea could appear on the board’s next meeting agenda.
“If it’s just back-of-the-envelope stuff we’ll never be able to convince the policymakers,” said college lobbyist Mike Gardner.
Stephenson first advocated a study session to start the long process of gaining full accreditation for the college at an August board meeting.
At the next meeting, the board discussed both independence and a new contract between GCC and Eastern Arizona College, the school that runs GCC.
The board tabled the contract pending more information.
Those present on Thursday generally agreed that accreditation could take a decade or more, and would require baby steps.
“It’s going to be a multi-year project and some of us might not be on the board to see it through completion,” said board chairman Bob Ashford.
State law prohibits Gila County from operating its own college because the county’s population and total assessed valuations fall below threshold limits. Advocates want to change the law.
The biggest point of contention for college officials is that GCC receives only half the per-student funding as other community colleges. GCC, as of Thursday, had the equivalent of 1,038 students enrolled and receives $950 for each of them. Other community colleges receive roughly $2,400 per student.
“I think job one is to get adequate financing,” said board member Don Crowley. He added that most accredited districts have at least 2,000 full-time students.
“We’re certainly well on our way,” he said.
One of the plays discussed was joining with other counties to create a consortium community college. Collaboration would eliminate the threshold requirements, but would require settling the power issue of a governing board, officials said.
Another strategy included EAC becoming a four-year college. That, officials said, would change the dynamic of GCC.
Senior Dean Stephen Cullen said if EAC transitioned into a four-year school, that could mean GCC could also offer four-year programs. However, Cullen said EAC is considering only a handful of baccalaureate programs.
Although state funding is not disbursed equally, this year’s budget cuts did not discriminate. The college lost $185,000 in various state funding streams.
“This is the first time we’ve ever been treated as a community college district and it’s in a punitive way,” Cullen said.
The college does not receive work force education funding and cannot bond for buildings. With the college’s rapid growth, Cullen said the challenge is paying for the needed classes and infrastructure to support it.
Recently, Gov. Janet Napolitano created a statewide Community College Council, which will cull representatives from every community college in Arizona — except GCC.
“I was insulted,” Stephenson said. “We were left out.”
Gardner said he also was offended, but guessed the exclusion was an oversight and not purposeful. He said he was looking into the matter and later predicted that GCC would be added.
If the college gained independence, it would also need to provide the logistical services that EAC now provides for it. Cullen estimated the departments could cost $1 million each year to operate.
Gardner said the recession offers community college officials a chance to plot and plan, and perhaps even bargain.
Stephenson suggested that the college could ask for accreditation without initially demanding full funding.
With accreditation, the college could make its own decisions, like hiring and firing personnel and with curriculum.
Stephenson said the questions of accreditation and full-funding are two separate issues. Which one should come first, he said, is “like the chicken or the egg.”