Gila Community College can pursue independence without dipping into state equalization funding and without a jump in local property taxes, say local advocates.
Legislation Sen. Sylvia Allen has promised to introduce in January will set up a whole new process by which a provisional community college can become a full-fledged, accredited community college, said GCC board member Tom Loeffler.
A draft of that legislation says the school will not only forego for up to 11 years a full share of the equalization fund that supports other rural community colleges, but would put off for several years a local vote on increasing property taxes to underwrite the cost of independence, said Loeffler.
Backers of independence for GCC will meet this week to launch an education and advocacy group to help push Allen’s legislation through the state senate and state house and to convince Gov. Jan Brewer to sign the measure into law.
“We’re trying to set up a network so that as the bill starts moving through the different committees, we can bombard them with e-mail, letters, phone calls — and testify if that becomes a possibility in support of the legislation,” said Loeffler.
He urged anyone interested in helping in the effort to call him at 474-3342.
The bill has taken shape as a result of nearly a year of effort by advocates and an advisory committee established by Sen. Allen, who in January will become the second-ranking lawmaker in the senate.
Independence backers decided to improve the odds for the legislation by essentially doing without any extra help from the state or an increase in the property tax rate beyond the current 2 percent annual maximum increase.
Lacking a boost from the equalization fund, GCC gets about a third of its budget from basic state enrollment aid, a third from local property taxes and about a third from student tuition.
As one of two provisional community college districts in the state, GCC doesn’t get equalization money or federal work force development money. It also must contract with Eastern Arizona College for accreditation and administration, which costs about $1.2 million annually.
If GCC received equalization money that now supports other rural community colleges in the state, it would have essentially doubled the college’s $6 million budget.
However, including GCC in the formula would have actually forced a $10 million increase in the state support for rural community colleges statewide, according to legislative analysts.
“That’s what Sylvia said would have killed the bill,” said Loeffler.
So instead, the legislation will provide no equalization funding for the first three to four years and then phase in equalization funding in the course of the next eight years.
However, Loeffler said many observers expect the Legislature to overhaul higher education funding formulas long before that time.
“The reality is that there’s a committee working on overhauling higher education funding in the Legislature right now. The projection is that equalization funding is going away at some point anyway. By becoming independent before this is all finalized, we could get in with whatever new formula they’re going to come up with.”
Advocates also want to include in the legislation key provisions concerning the local property tax rate, which provides a major portion of the funding for community colleges.
Currently, GCC has the second-lowest property tax rate in the state. Existing state law allows the community college district to set a base tax rate at the time it is established or becomes independent. After that, the rate increases by a maximum of 2 percent annually, said Loeffler. But the proposed legislation would allow GCC to put off setting the new base rate with the approval of the voters until it is ready to gain its accreditation — which would likely come four or five years after it achieved independence.
Loeffler said that EAC’s projections for enrollment growth in the next few years suggest that an independent GCC could operate for the next four or five years without the equalization funding and without a property tax increase.
“I don’t think we should go to the voters and ask for more (property tax) money until we need it and as long as we’re not actually seeking accreditation we don’t need it. Gaining independence and getting accredited are two different things,” he said.
As a result, the legislation proposed by Sen. Allen wouldn’t provide an immediate financial windfall for the college.
GCC would become immediately eligible for federal work force development funding that now goes to the other regular community colleges in the state. This year, that would have amounted to more than $300,000. It would have allowed the college to bolster programs that train workers, like the nursing program, the small business development program and perhaps the certificates and degrees in fire science and other job-related fields.
Independence could provide other more immediate financial benefits for the college, noted Loeffler. Independence would give the locally elected board control of the program and the budget, which is now largely controlled by administrators at EAC, which holds the accreditation and technically employs the staff and faculty.
GCC would still have to contract with EAC or some other college to provide accreditation during the years it would take GCC to get its own accreditation. However, the cost of such a contract and the cost of hiring necessary administrative staff might be less than the $1.2 million the college pays now on its contract with EAC, said Loeffler.
An independent GCC might also gain flexibility in the classes it offers, especially job training and enrichment classes that aren’t necessarily part of a degree program. That could provide new options to cater to Payson’s large population of retirees who already have degrees but enjoy taking assorted classes at GCC. Currently, EAC limits course offerings to accredited classes.
However, Loeffler noted that the potential savings on the current contract with EAC, should an independent GCC turn to some other college for its accreditation, remains unclear. He noted that EAC has never provided a detailed breakdown on what services it provides with the money GCC pays through a 25-percent overhead charge on all budget items.
Other GCC board members, like Chairman Bob Ashford, have argued that the contract with EAC remains a good deal for GCC, since it would cost the college more to provide all the services EAC offers on its own.
Some administrators with experiences in other community college districts have echoed that belief, suggesting that the 25-percent overhead charge may represent a bargain for Gila Community College District taxpayers.
Even though the GCC board members disagree on whether the EAC contract represents a bargain for the still growing GCC, the entire board in November agreed to support Sen. Allen’s effort to provide a “pathway to independence” for GCC and other rural counties that now lack a full-fledged community college district.
Advocates for GCC maintain that the future of the college depends on winning independence now, especially if the state ends up overhauling the formulas for funding universities and community colleges in the near future.
“We need to get everything in place now. But instead of hiring a bunch of people in the first year, we spread it out over a four-year period,” said Loeffler. ”At that point we can go for accreditation and then go to the voters and say, OK, do you want us to become fully accredited?”