College Faces Classroom Space Crunch

Gila Community College now has more than 1,000 students for the first time

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Space limitations will soon constrict growth at Gila Community College, officials say, but the school has no legal means to borrow money for construction.

Because the college lacks autonomy, it is not allowed to bond, and it does not own its buildings — the county does.

A new five-year Master Facilities Plan discussed at a recent board meeting is essentially moot, said Senior Dean Stephen Cullen. “The buildings do not belong to GCC.”

Although the agenda item was slated for discussion only, Cullen spoke about the steps necessary to enhance the college.

“We’re just going to have to really sit down and split hairs with the budget,” he said. “We need to establish a fund for this.”

The report concludes that new buildings on the Payson campus, which is the most rapidly growing and the most congested, should receive priority, but that without equal state funding or asking voters for more property taxes, the college will face serious hindrances to growth.

The report also states that the college must pursue gaining ownership of its property and continue lobbying for equal state funding.

At the Payson campus, Dean Pamela Butterfield said congestion during morning and afternoon peak times makes scheduling classes difficult.

Butterfield has sought out space in the community, and the school now offers some evening classes at the high school.

Nursing classes easily move to the hospital and into retirement homes.

“I can keep seeking out space,” Butterfield said.

However, the constraints create a quagmire, officials say. Space limitations constrict enrollment growth, but greater enrollment will offer the school more legitimacy as it begins to demand equal funding from the state legislature.

The county falls short of the population and property valuation thresholds to legally operate its own college, and so GCC operates under Eastern Arizona College. Legislatively, the dependence translates into less funding and fewer rights, such as the ability to bond. College officials aren’t sure if they can borrow money privately.

Meanwhile, enrollment is soaring, and Cullen noted that increased overhead accompanies growth.

As of Friday, the school had crossed the 1,000 full-time student enrollment threshold for the first time, reaching 1,026. The facilities report puts average annual enrollment growth countywide at 14 percent for the past two years.

While community college enrollment is declining statewide, Gila County is expanding rapidly by comparison. According to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee, community college enrollment declined by 198 students statewide from fiscal year 2006 to 2007.

However, GCC’s full-time student enrollment jumped nearly 19 percent in the same time period, up to 753 full-time students. The second most quickly growing community college, in Yavapai County, grew 7.9 percent.

However, GCC received just $754,000 in state aid for fiscal year 2008. No other school received less than $3.7 million, according to the committee.

GCC receives $946 per full-time student in state funding, compared to an average of $2,000 at other community colleges because it’s not a full-fledged college.

The school is also ineligible for the upwards of $350,000 in work force funding that other rural community colleges receive.

Without increased state aid and increased tax revenue, the report states construction would be “highly unlikely” without cuts to staffing levels or student services. This year, the college collected $2.87 million in taxes countywide, and has a budget of $5.6 million.

The report predicted that enrollment would plateau either because of declining student interest or due to bursting buildings. Consequently, budget projections based on future enrollment were limited to 10 percent.

The report projects a new construction project “be considered” in the 2013-2014 school year, and concludes that allows enough time for the college to save money.

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