Community Colleges Face Scary Budgets

GCC poised to push for independence, work force funding

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The good news: The Gila Community College Board finally seems agreed on the need to push for equal funding and independence and its chief legislative champion has secured more power.

The bad news: It looks like an awful budget year, in which community colleges statewide could suffer big setbacks.

That’s the gist of the legislative prospects for Gila Community College offered at a recent board meeting by the district’s chief lobbyist.

Arizona Sen. Sylvia Allen has won key committee appointments in an overwhelmingly Republican Legislature, which puts her in a strong position to push through reforms designed to remedy GCC’s second-class status as a provisional community college, said Mike Gardner, head of Triadvocates, at a recent board meeting.

“She’s pushing hard” through a recently established task force to provide GCC with a “path to independence,” said Gardner. He said the task force was moving to draft specific legislation.

Money remains the biggest problem, especially in the midst of the current state budget crisis.

Gardner predicted the eventual solution might involve moving toward independence without immediately giving GCC access to a big pot of “equalization” money now divided up among most of the rural community college districts.

However, he vowed to press for GCC to get funding through an additional fund intended to help community colleges provide job training. GCC can’t currently apply for this “work force development” money because it is a provisional community college.

Gardner said GCC could build support by demonstrating that it gets far less state aid in several categories than other community colleges in rural areas. “Fairness is a strong argument at the Legislature — it does play well,” said Gardner.

The topic has spurred sometimes-contrasting statements by GCC board members in the past, with some board members favoring the continuation of the college’s contract with Eastern Arizona College, which provides the credential for GCC and charges a 25 percent fee tacked onto almost everything GCC spends. However, at the most recent meeting, board members all supported the move toward independence.

“What is the best way to mobilize the community?” asked board member Larry Stephenson. “In the past, our efforts have been disjointed.”

“I think we have to show a united front,” said Chairman Bob Ashford.

“We do need to be more public and elaborate on what it is we’re trying to do for the community we serve,” said board member Armida Bittner.

Gardner said community colleges in general will face a tough year, mostly as a result of the ongoing state budget meltdown.

Gardner recommended that GCC focus on getting a law enacted that would allow provisional colleges access to work force development funding, which could provide funding worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

The college should also work through Sen. Allen to achieve independence, without necessarily expecting an immediate infusion of money.

“I don’t anticipate that anyone (in the Legislature) is going to open up the equalization funding (for rural districts) right now,” said Gardner.

“I understand they can’t afford to take a hit right now,” said Stephenson about the other rural community colleges, “but we need a little something.”

“The question is how can we get our fair share without hurting our friends,” said Gardner.

The Legislature has squeezed community college funding in each of the past two, crisis-plagued years — mostly by refusing to fund enrollment growth, despite big increases in the number of students enrolled in the system.

Community colleges get a big chunk of their money from tuition and from local property taxes.

Gila Community College has the second lowest property tax rate in the state, just behind Coconino Community College. The local property tax rate is about a quarter the rate in Yuma or Graham counties and about half as much as the rate in Maricopa County, according to figures compiled by the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

Gila Community College also runs perhaps the most efficient program in the state and charges students less than any other college besides EAC, according to the JLBC figures.

The handful of rural community college districts who get extra money through the state’s “equalization fund” have actually fared much better than most when it comes to reductions in state support in the past several years. The Legislature set up the equalization fund to bolster rural colleges, but at the same time set escalating thresholds to prevent late-comers like Gila Community College from qualifying for the extra funding — or even forming a fully accredited district.

The state provides $116 million annually to community colleges in “operating state aid,” but has suspended the formula that would cover payments for new enrollment for the past two years on top of a $9 million cut. That reduction has mostly affected Pima Community College and Maricopa Community College, which is actually the largest college system in the country.

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