Independence for Gila Community College could cost taxpayers, and a debate erupted Thursday among task force members who disagree about whether the college needs more funding before bidding for accreditation.
Sen. Sylvia Allen, who heads the task force, continued to push for a January deadline for drafting legislation that would allow GCC to award diplomas. Along the way, task force members can identify problems and figure out solutions, she added.
“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” Allen said as several task force members worried that GCC lacked enough money to operate.
GCC taxes for homeowners rank the second lowest in the state, and the college also has a fraction of the per-student state funding as other community colleges.
Senior Dean Stephen Cullen pointed to those two funding shortages, and said they needed addressing before the bid for independence.
Allen disagreed. “If you’re functioning today with the money you have today, I don’t see why you can’t function tomorrow with the money you have today as an independent college.”
County Supervisor Mike Pastor said Eastern Arizona College now provides services like the registrar because GCC can’t afford to pay for them.
Allen disagreed. “You have been paying your way now.” The college pays about $1.5 million in overhead to EAC each year, and Allen wondered what services GCC could pay for with that money.
Cullen said the money used for overhead isn’t enough to sustain services.
Mike Harper, with GCC’s lobbying firm Triadvocates, recently sent a survey to community colleges to ask how much money they spend the on annual costs of running a college. He’s still waiting on responses.
Also, a subcommittee is still working on the key issue of developing benchmarks a provisional college would have to meet, such as enrolling a certain number of students, before gaining the ability to bid for independence.
Other specifics of how the process would unfold still need definition, including the public’s role and how a newly accredited college college would receive funding.
Complicating the funding question, a group is now reviewing the entire way Arizona community colleges are funded. The Arizona Board of Regents recently received a grant to examine the state’s funding formula for higher education, and a group is looking at developing a performance-based formula to propose to the legislature, according to Stacey Morley, a senate research analyst for the education accountability and reform committee.
The board of regents oversees four-year colleges, but the resulting ideas could also impact community colleges, said Morley. Currently, the state funds community colleges per full-time student. Also, rural colleges receive a share of a roughly $35-million pot of so-called equalization funds, which helps fund schools with small tax bases.
Task force member Kevin McCarthy called basing the bid for independence on more rural college money a “colossal waste of time.”
“It’s important to remain grounded in reality,” he said. “Let’s be honest. There are some community colleges that would rather we not be sitting here today.”
Still, those working on accreditation generally agree that Gila County voters would have to approve a tax increase to support the college.
“The voters of Gila County, it’s going to be their true call,” said Allen. “They have to realize (the current tax levy) is underfunded.”
McCarthy sounded skeptical. “The receptivity for further property taxes is going to be pretty low.”
Task force members agreed that GCC could take over services gradually. County schools Superintendent Linda O’Dell suggested partnerships, for instance asking the county for help with technology services.
GCC board member Tom Loeffler said that his subcommittee is working on a cost-neutral way of gaining accreditation at the state level. However, he has said previously that taxpayers will likely have to help pay.
All told, the accreditation process can take up to a decade. However, if the winner of November’s state senate race successfully introduces legislation in January, and voters both approve the college and tax levy, the college could become a candidate for accreditation in a couple years.
If voters approved the college, it would still have to contract with a fully accredited institution until it gained probationary accreditation in about two years.
Allen said the group needs to figure out how much money running the college will cost, and then figure out how to run it.
“I don’t want to give up and I don’t want to be negative,” she said, adding that the group should develop the legislation, mapping out the process for a provisional college to gain full accreditation.
“It’s not going to happen if we don’t have a plan,” Allen said.
From the audience, Mickie Nye suggested working with EAC to reduce overhead costs as GCC takes on more of its own responsibilities in a smooth transition. Cullen agreed that could be negotiated. “EAC would someday like to see us stand on our own,” he said.