Back To Square One

Leaders started GCC to expand class offerings, gain control

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Gila Community College in Payson and in Globe offers numerous higher education offerings to Rim Country residents, from nursing to computer to art, which helps young students and older residents expand their knowledge and acquire AA degrees, along with providing the first two years of college for students going on to four-year schools.

The idea began simply enough: Start a college and exert control over its finances. Build a more robust curriculum, one more likely to educate the area’s youth and help them enter a four-year college.

During the early 2000s, Eastern offered classes to Gila County residents as it had since the late 1960s. State law prohibited Gila County from operating its own college because it launched its college after the Arizona Legislature passed requirements Gila County didn’t meet. So Eastern provided classes here and Gila County subsidized out-of-county tuition for residents, which cost around $1 million annually.

Over time, county supervisors grew dissatisfied with the level of accounting Eastern provided, according to Ron Christensen, a former county supervisor and Gila board member. Moreover, the county wanted to expand the number and type of classes.

“We had pottery classes and all kinds of little items like that,” said Christensen. “But that was not what our youngsters needed to get going and get to university.”

Ironically, those two struggles continue today. Board members are still dissatisfied with the budget detail they receive from Eastern, saying the reams of paper don’t provide an overall picture.

And the debate over senior tuition waivers also continues.

Most recently, rollbacks in the waivers spurred a 9 percent drop in enrollment.

When board chairman Bob Ashford led the successful push to reinstate waivers for those over 60, he said the policy made the college money. “That’s why it was in place initially,” he said.

But many advocates for the college insist that if the college had developed a robust curriculum to attract high school graduates and others seeking to take introductory college classes, the senior waiver reduction would not have wiped out so many of the college’s students.

Peter Kettner, Gila Community College’s first board president, said, “You don’t have community colleges so seniors can go to a wellness center.”

Gila and Eastern are the only two community colleges that offer such extensive deals for seniors, and some question the ethics of enticing seniors with free tuition, then collecting the state aid that comes with increased credit hours.

Supporters of the tuition waivers say they allow older folks, some of whom may be unable to afford tuition, to take classes while also bolstering enrollment.

However, even if Gila leaders wanted to alter curriculum, they would have to seek Eastern’s approval.

Same battle, different time

Other battles have also changed little. Advocates are still waging the fight that supervisors fought during the early 2000s, trying to change the law that bars Gila County from operating an independent college.

In 2002, Gila County voters approved funding for the provisional community college district so leaders could offer more options for high school students and gain more financial accountability. The move was also supposed to save Gila County taxpayers money because the county was subsidizing about $1 million annually for residents to attend the local Eastern campus.

Also in 2002, county supervisors severed their relationship with Eastern. According to past Roundup news reports, Eastern refused to change the operating agreement and require locally collected money to stay in the county if the two entities ever separated.

After voters approved funding for the provisional district that year, Gila’s first board approved a contract with Pima Community College. Pima offered the most robust curriculum, said Gila founding president, Barbara Ganz.

Life with Pima

Gila’s contract with Pima allowed it to directly employ staff, including deans like Ganz. When budgeting, Pima would present to Gila the cost of the contract. Board members would then budget the remaining money, Ganz said.

Also, Gila’s board could make its own decisions. “They no longer have that,” said Ganz. Because deans now work for Eastern, they don’t answer to Gila’s board, elected by Gila taxpayers. They answer to Eastern officials.

For example, the board recently voted to provide scholarships to first- and second-year students entering into specific studies, including nursing. But Senior Dean Stephen Cullen

informed board members that the college didn’t have the money, and wouldn’t be offering the scholarships.

The senior dean has also unceremoniously announced huge decisions like the once-weekly furlough that gave staffers a 20 percent pay cut.

Under Pima, Gila’s board had much more power.

However, Pima did refuse to allow Gila to provide senior tuition waivers.

When Gila officials explained the waivers to Pima, “They advised, ‘what you want us to do is unethical at best, and at worst, it’s fraudulent,’” former county manager Steve Besich said in 2004, according to county meeting minutes.

The quandary arises from collecting state money for students who aren’t paying tuition.

“There is no benchmark for achievement. You’re enrolling students in the same class, year after year, semester after semester, and in some cases five and six years in the same class,” Besich said at the time.

On the other hand, some criticized Pima. According to those interviewed for this article, people in Globe were happy with the curriculum under Eastern.

“They were enjoying what we had,” said Christensen.

Also, enrollment dropped dramatically once the Gila board severed its relationship with Eastern and signed on with Pima.

Ganz attributed that to the transition. “There were a few months where there were no college services and so the student population dropped off at that time because of the uncertainty.”

Neither Cullen nor Ashford responded to requests for comment for this article.

Not so fast

In 2004, the first Gila College district election heralded a new board.

Gila’s first appointed board was composed of two Payson representatives, two from Globe and one from Young.

But in 2004, the Young member decided against running and Mike Pastor, who is from the Globe area and now sits on the county board of supervisors, won the spot.

Also in that election, Payson resident Larry Stephenson unseated Kettner.

Kettner said the first board’s decisions were usually unanimous — and it wasn’t for lack of different opinions. “We discussed issues until there was agreement,” he said.

However, the Young board member’s defeat created north and south blocs. Kettner said the board has split 3-2, south against north, on most decisions since.

The decision to reunite with Eastern was no different. The controversial move sparked multiple resignations and revelations of open meeting law violations involving Ashford and top Eastern officials. Critics of the new contract said the change erased all of Gila’s progress.

“The contract with EAC was never negotiated,” said board member Larry Stephenson, who

voted against the contract. Stephenson still sits on the board today.

“They had very good legal counsel and drafted this airtight contract,” he added.

The move proved controversial from the start. Ashford, then Gila’s vice-chair, called an executive session to approve the new contract on a date when two Payson board members couldn’t attend, according to previous reports.

Payson’s then-mayor Barbara Brewer asked a judge for an injunction to prevent the board from discussing the contract. She didn’t have time for a formal request, but the maneuver proved unnecessary. The board tabled the proposal anyway after several college staff pleaded for the

decision to involve the entire board.

Two weeks after Gila reunited with Eastern, three Gila officials resigned — Ganz, Director of Community Programs and Noncredit Classes Sarah Nelson and Christensen, according to previous reports.

The board moved to approve the resignations.

A Roundup news report from the time read, “And then, the aye votes, spoken loud, came quickly — even from Ashford who remained silent and let Pastor do most of the talking.

“Except when the time came to discuss money. Ashford, dressed in a tie, didn’t ask for a budget, or a curriculum or even a list of assets. He was after $43,000 to replace damaged exercise equipment on the Globe campus.”

The attorney general ultimately found Ashford guilty of violating the open meeting law after he solicited opinions from fellow board members on how they would vote on the contract, according to a letter from that office. He also e-mailed details of a governing board executive session to an Eastern official.

Ashford paid a fine of $500.

Ganz might have lost her job anyway because the new contract fired all existing employees, although it allowed them to reapply with ultimate hiring discretion awarded to Eastern.

Back to Eastern

All Gila employees now worked for Eastern. Gila advocates point to that particular clause as one they want desperately to change.

“There is no longer any employee of the actual board of governors to oversee the interests of the taxpayers of Gila County,” Ganz said by phone.

She declined to discuss her reasons for resigning. However, according to previous reports, she felt frustrated with the powerlessness of her position under the new contract.

Ashford declined to comment for this story. However, he used to respond to questions from the Roundup, and previously sent an e-mail detailing his thoughts for an earlier story.

“First and foremost, GCC is extremely happy and satisfied with the existing partnership and contract with EAC,” he wrote. Eastern has provided all requested classes and works with Gila to provide a “viable and cost-effective option to postsecondary education, work-force development programs and community interest offerings,” he wrote.

In recent months, however, Ashford became frustrated when enrollment dropped, with the decline especially pronounced on the Globe campus.

The drop spurred board member Tom Loeffler to suggest hiring a part-time accountant. He proposed renegotiating the contract to make Gila’s three deans direct employees of Gila, and then fund the part-time position with the savings in overhead costs.

The board defeated the measure 3-2.

Read part three of our special seven-part report on GCC: Are we getting ripped off?

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