Activists Seek Independence For Gila College

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Just one month after Gila Community College board member Larry Stephenson protested the college's serf-like existence, the board on Friday will vote on extending the contract with Eastern Arizona College.

The contract's appearance on the consent agenda shocked Stephenson. "You'd think something of this magnitude would have been discussed beforehand and not placed on the consent agenda," Stephenson said Monday.

The question of achieving GCC's sovereignty is also on the agenda. Stephenson, in August, requested the topic's continued appearance to impart a sense of urgency.

"I'm not really anti-EAC as much as I am pro-GCC," he said in August. "This is a long-term process."

GCC operates under EAC, which controls GCC's academic and personnel decisions.

State law prohibits Gila County from operating its own community college because the county's population and property value counts fall below threshold requirements.

Graham County, where EAC is located, has a population smaller than Gila County, but the state allows it to operate a college because the school existed before the threshold requirements passed. EAC was grandfathered in, according to EAC's Director of Marketing and Public Relations Todd Haynie.

Gila County receives less than half of the per-student funding that other community colleges do, and pays EAC 25 percent overhead on all expenditures. The contract between the schools gives EAC the power to hire and fire staff and control curriculum. GCC staff receive paychecks from EAC.

Details for the 10-year contract listed on Friday's agenda were unclear at press time.

Stephenson suggested in August that the board invite EAC to a meeting to discuss GCC's goal. It's not a threatening situation, Stephenson said. "We're trying to build on their success."

Senior Dean Stephen Cullen agreed. "The mantra should be, the experiment is over," he said. "The sooner we start making a presence at the state legislature, the sooner we will get our due justice."

Community needs to lobby legislature

Board member Don Crowley said members of the board and the community should lobby the legislature, besides the lobbyists the college has hired. Legislators "hear so much from lobbyists," Crowley said. Private citizens could offer urgency.

That August meeting marked the first time the board made its quest for sovereignty public, Stephenson said recently, although relationship spats have, in the past, splashed across newspapers and boardrooms. Tensions have eased into quiet resolution as GCC's years of angst have sublimated into plans for the future.

Gila County's relationship with EAC began in 1968, though Gila County voters didn't agree to finance the school as a provisional district until 2002. Without the provisional district, EAC charged Gila County residents out-of county tuition to take classes. Gila County subsidized the classes so its residents could pay the lower rate.

The relationship between GCC and EAC continued until 2002 when money disputes stalled contract negotiations. Gila County later sued EAC, alleging that EAC spent money designated for Gila County's school. In 2002, Gila County signed a contract with Pima Community College for educational services.

In 2005, GCC's governing board approved 3-2 a contract to resume relations with EAC. The three southern board members voted for the contract, which settled the legal disputes, and the two northern board members voted against it.

Stephenson, when recently asked how the college's quest for independence has unfolded, answered, "Three to two."

The 2005 contract between GCC and EAC was never negotiated, according to Stephenson. After its ratification, then-GCC President Barbara Ganz, then-Director of Community Programs and Noncredit Classes Sarah Nelson, and then-board Chairman Ron Christensen resigned in protest. "I won't sign it," Christensen said at the time. "It emasculates the governing board."

Stephenson said he has no problem with EAC. "They have been a pretty good provider. What I take exception to is the terms of the contract." Stephenson wants autonomy.

In 2005, just before the board voted to accept the contract, a coalition that included now-board member Don Crowley uncovered open meeting law violations. The violations led to sanctions against the board by Arizona's Attorney General in 2005. Then board member and now-Chairman Bob Ashford was fined $500, payable to the college's general fund, according to a letter from the AG's office.

Ashford had solicited opinions from fellow board members on how they would vote regarding GCC's and EAC's contract negotiations, according to the letter. He also e-mailed details of a governing board executive session to an EAC official.

In another e-mail to the same official, "Mr. Ashford discusses the board's strategy for voting, and indicated that he had enough ‘yes' votes to approve a settlement and contract with EAC," the AG's letter states.

Now, some three years later, the relationship seems to have settled. GCC needs EAC to function.

And EAC senses satisfaction. "We are not aware of any such movement (for independence) in Gila County and no one has contacted us about such an effort. On the contrary, all indications to us are that the residents of Gila County are satisfied with the services that EAC is providing," Haynie wrote in an e-mail.

Ashford confirmed, in his e-mail, "GCC is extremely happy and satisfied with the existing partnership and contract with EAC." He considers the partnership a "win-win-win-win" for all entities -- both of the colleges, Gila County and its citizens.

Time to cut umbilical cord with Eastern Arizona

However, Stephenson wants to cut the college's umbilical cord, and says the situation is constricting growth. Since GCC is a provisional college, it cannot ask voters to approve construction bonds. School officials have said classroom space is tight.

Also, since GCC is a provisional college, it receives $950 for each full-time student enrolled, compared to the $2,000 full-fledged colleges receive.

Ashford agreed, at the August meeting, that the college should lobby to receive equal funding, even if it remains provisional.

After considering the workforce development money that GCC does not receive as a result of its provisional status, Ashford estimates the state shortchanges GCC $1.5 million a year, if the school enrolls the equivalent of 1,150 full-time students. The school, as of late August, enrolled 711 full-time students, according to Haynie.

"We need to be somewhere around 2,000-2,500 (full-time students) to make the argument for becoming fully organized and accredited," Ashford wrote in an e-mail. He estimates the school will reach those numbers in another three to five years.

Ashford wrote that as enrollment increases, the college's plea for independence will gain legitimacy.

"It's a multi-year effort. And it is expensive," Ashford wrote. EAC now acts as registrar, accountant, the financial aid department, and provides other logistical support that makes colleges run. GCC would need to provide those services in-house.

"Without the support of the taxpayers of Gila County, I don't think becoming a free-standing institution will be likely to happen," Ashford wrote. County residents this year will pay $2.87 million for their college, which has a total budget of $5.6 million.

Though nobody has calculated how much it would cost the county to operate its own college, Stephenson wagers that if it received full funding and did not have to pay the 25 percent additional cost on expenditures, then the numbers could allow the county to operate a sovereign college. "The question is what could we do with 25 percent?" Stephenson asked.

Ashford states that besides increased funding, the county's legislators would need to ready themselves for battle. State Rep. Bill Konopnicki said the law will not likely change soon. In 2006, the state legislature passed a bill making provisional districts permanent. "I had to burn a lot of political chips to get that done," Konopnicki said. "I don't think the people in Payson realize how close we came to losing that."

Gila County has the only provisional college district in the state. The original legislative bill that approved creating a provisional district sunset after 10 years. A bill was defeated in 2005 that sought to dissolve provisional districts.

Konopnicki couldn't say why legislators wanted to kill provisional districts, other than speculating on urban lawmakers' apathy to the rural plight.

"People don't understand rural Arizona; they could care less about us," he said. "When I say we've used our capital, it's not in the cards to have happen."

However, he added, "it doesn't mean we can't do something later. It doesn't mean we're going to give up the fight." If county residents want to continue the fight, Konopnicki said, presenting a unified front is essential. "We've had an awful lot of fighting in Payson... It got very nasty and very public," he added. "If we're going to spend time doing that, we can kiss our current college good-bye."

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