A new kind of battle has erupted over Gila Community College. This time, two state lawmakers are sparring over who is the college’s biggest ally.
State Sen. Sylvia Allen announced last week that she will head a new task force devoted to gaining independence for GCC. The move came after numerous talks with college board member Tom Loeffler, who will also sit on the committee.
Meanwhile, Rep. Bill Konopnicki says Allen stole his idea of starting a task force, and lambasted Allen’s willingness to kill a GCC bill if it came with an amendment creating the task force he wanted, with members of both the House and Senate.
Konopnicki is term limited out of his House seat this year, and is running against Allen for her Senate seat.
The combined GCC bill will allow the college to bond to build new buildings and to also take ownership of existing buildings, which the county now owns.
Lawmakers approved the bill’s final version Thursday and sent it to the governor.
Konopnicki initially introduced the bills. Allen then introduced an amendment to ensure bond money remained in GCC’s control. Eastern Arizona College tracks GCC’s finances, and some feared Eastern could hijack control of money.
Gila County’s population and tax base fall beneath legislative thresholds that would allow it to operate a community college.
Then, Konopnicki tried to attach an amendment to create a legislative study committee, which Allen opposed.
“We don’t need two groups,” Allen said. At this point, the legislation stalled.
Konopnicki issued a press release slamming Allen. “I’m disappointed Senator Allen would vote no on such an important amendment to the county and Gila Community College,” the release read.
The next day, the committee convened again, and Konopnicki voted for the bill without the amendment.
“I could have killed the bill,” Konopnicki said. However, he said the measures “are two steps moving in the direction that the college would like to go,” and that the bill’s value outweighed his displeasure.
“I think what made him change his mind is he realized he was the one that killed the bill,” said Allen.
In the press release, Konopnicki said, “I’ve been working on this provisional college district since 2004 and it was my work and my bills that allowed this provisional college to exist.”
The original bill allowing provisional colleges was passed in 2001, but the law was set to expire. Konopnicki helped pass a bill around 2005 making the provisional status permanent and ensured that GCC would continue to exist.
Last month, Konopnicki called the existing college a “miracle,” and said GCC would never gain accreditation.
“It just isn’t going to happen and I wouldn’t want people to have false hopes,” he said in March.
Now, he says independence is possible with a clear plan that doesn’t draw too much attention to itself. “I’ve been around here long enough to know how to make it happen,” Konopnicki said. “Very methodically, I’ve chipped away to move the college to where we want to be.”
He added, “It’s not going to be like flip a switch and tomorrow we can have it.”
Meanwhile Allen said Thursday, “Holy heck, why do we keep dragging our feet on this?”
Allen’s task force could meet for the first time next month. Its seven or eight members will include Gila County Superintendent of Schools Linda O’Dell, Senior Dean Stephen Cullen, and Loeffler. Board chairman Bob Ashford has been invited.
Allen said she wants legislation ready by January.
Konopnicki says his task force would have been composed of members from both the House and Senate, which would create buy-in among legislators. House members would be more likely to vote for recommendations they helped craft, he said.
Some GCC advocates who question Konopnicki’s commitment for gaining sovereignty for the college worried that a Konopnicki-led task force would slow down efforts.
Konopnicki said Gila County must tread carefully to avoid raising the ire of Maricopa County, which could easily squash efforts.
He also said GCC advocates will have to overcome the testimony of county officials in 2005, when they said GCC would not seek independence in exchange for permanent provisional status.
“Trust me, it will come up again,” he said.
However, Gila County meeting minutes from 2004 quote county and college officials discussing how to make the college independent.