Legislative staffers have begun crafting the potential new law that could free Gila Community College, said board member Tom Loeffler this week.
The law, however, will likely not tackle the most controversial and most lucrative question of the $40-million rural college funding pot.
The announcement comes after just two task force meetings devoted toward liberating the college from needing to contract with another for academic accreditation.
Sen. Sylvia Allen several months ago started a GCC task force, saying she wanted legislation ready to introduce in January.
Instead of passing legislation that would solely involve GCC, the rule will lay out a plan for any provisional community college to gain full accreditation. For years, GCC was the only provisional college in the state, however Santa Cruz voters recently agreed to form one.
State lawmakers years ago introduced the provisional legislation so counties without community colleges could form them without taking substantial funding away from other community colleges, Loeffler has said.
The process in development would require several steps. First, a college would have to exist for five years. It would need a campus and buildings to provide classes, employ a certain number or percentage of full-time faculty, demonstrate an ability to financially sustain itself, and enroll a certain number of full-time students, perhaps 300. Instead of focusing on headcount, colleges use a credit-based count for the equivalent of full-time students.
“These are some of the ideas,” said Loeffler. “Nothing is in concrete yet.”
If the plan unfolds without incident, whoever wins November’s state senate seat would introduce finalized legislation in January. Then, later in 2011, Gila County voters would decide a two-pronged measure. First, they would decide if they wanted a college. Second, they would approve a tax increase to pay for it.
GCC’s tax rate, at 53 cents per $100 this year, ranks the second lowest for Arizona community colleges.
If voters approved the college, it would still have to contract with another college for two years before it gained probationary accreditation, which would last for a few more years. But, the college would not necessarily have to contract with existing provider Eastern Arizona College during the interim period.
All told, the accreditation process could take seven years. However, the college could effectively function on its own with probationary accreditation.
Advocates have fought for GCC’s independence for a decade now. Provisional colleges lack fundamental privileges like awarding diplomas and access to the most lucrative pots of state aid.
Critics also say the contract with EAC awards all rights to the Thatcher college, denying Gila County taxpayers any input on decisions involving GCC.
If GCC won independence, it would become eligible for $300,000 in workforce development funds, out of a $14-million pot statewide.
Loeffler said lawmakers would likely not protest sharing the money with GCC. “We’re talking nickels and dimes,” he said.
The legislation, however, will likely avoid the most controversial part of GCC’s quest for independence — the $40 million available statewide to fund rural community colleges, called equalization aid.
“We didn’t think we wanted to monkey with equalization aid,” said Loeffler.
Loeffler said legislative staffers have an ongoing examination into the equity and practicality of the rural community college money. In a time of historic deficits, some lawmakers question whether the state can afford the funding.
Others complain at its gross inequities — EAC receives half of the funding. Loeffler said that’s because of the college’s low enrollment and also because Graham County residents pay one of the highest tax rates in the state for their college.
If GCC did end up eligible for the rural college money, and Gila County residents agreed to pay more in taxes, Loeffler said GCC would receive a greater proportion of the funds.
For now, however, those working on the plan aim for simplicity.
“We don’t want to antagonize all the stakeholders in trying to solve all the evils of the world,” said Loeffler.