Gila Community College advocates may find it easier to gain accreditation if they don’t immediately demand more funding, state Senator Sylvia Allen said recently.
Allen said the push for GCC to gain independence is completely plausible, but that backers should devise a definitive plan.
She proposed gathering stakeholders this summer to identify challenges and plan the future with her help.
“That’s why I’m here,” she said.
The senator must defend her seat this fall against challenger and current Rep. Bill Konopnicki, who said recently that GCC will never become a fully-accredited college. Konopnicki cannot run for his seat again because of term limits.
“We have so many issues in this state,” said Allen. “We have to quit saying ‘we can’t do this, we can’t do that. If there’s a will there’s a way, and by darn we can figure it out.”
Allen also said that two bills involving the college are progressing through various Senate committees, despite a backlog of other bills.
Gila County’s population and tax base fall beneath legislative thresholds, prohibiting it from operating a community college.
GCC contracts with Eastern Arizona College for academic and administrative services. However, GCC advocates say the contract awards too much power to EAC.
Talk has focused on changing the law, but because full accreditation would render GCC eligible for a greater portion of state aid, the subject is touchy — especially when the state is slashing billions from its budget.
Provisional colleges are precluded from receiving roughly $140 million divvied up to rural community colleges every year.
“People don’t want to share money,” said Allen. “That’s why it is a big issue.”
Should GCC gain independence, several immediate changes would help the college financially.
First, GCC pays 25 percent overhead to EAC for administration, which amounts to more than $1 million annually.
The college could redirect that money toward operating expenses. Second, GCC pays at least $63,000 each year to rent its own buildings, plus $16,000 overhead. That charge would disappear if the college gained ownership or sovereignty.
Granting the college independence would require changing the legislative thresholds for tax base and population.
Gila County met the population threshold of 40,000 people over the age of 15 in the last Census, but remains well below the required tax base of $1.7 billion for 2011.
Beyond local issues of sovereignty, Allen advocates re-examining the entire community college system because of other instances of unfairness. For example, Apache County does not have its own college and must pay out-of-county tuition for residents to attend.
If Gila County did not have a provisional college, it too would subsidize out-of-county tuition for residents.
“It’s a good opportunity right now for us to look at everything,” Allen said.
Meanwhile, two bills involving GCC are moving through the Senate.
The first would allow GCC bonding authority to construct new buildings. Allen attached an amendment, with Konopnicki’s approval, which would guarantee GCC’s board full control of money collected.
EAC ordinarily controls GCC’s finances, and some feared that EAC would also have overseen bond money. Already, GCC advocates criticize EAC for not providing enough financial data.
The second bill would allow the college to take ownership of its buildings — which the county now owns. Allen said the bills still need to travel through various Senate committees, and the bonding bill must return for House approval because of the amendment.
“We’ll have to stay on top of it,” said Allen. “I just think it’s important that every community — or county — be able to realize the goals they want for their particular community,” and have “the freedom to move forward. I think that is one of my responsibilities as a senator.”
Allen added that she doesn’t anticipate protests from the EAC community for working toward GCC’s independence.
“There are goals they want to realize,” she said. “I would hope that EA would understand that people want to be in control of their own destiny.”
She continued, “If the roles were reversed, I would be supporting EA in their wanting to be an independent college.”