Larry Stephenson graduated high school in the bottom fourth of his high school class. He struggled during those years, and when the time for college arose, he chose Wenatchee Valley College, a two-year college in Washington.
Those two years transformed Stephenson’s attitude toward learning — and with it, his life. “They took me under their wing and I got excited about learning,” he said.
Today, Stephenson holds a Ph.D. in geography and works on forest health issues and sits on the Gila Community College (Gila) board, and continues the fight for improving the school to give kids like him access to a good education.
For more than a decade, advocates like Stephenson have devoted themselves to making Gila a thriving institution. But despite generations of effort, the fast-growing Gila Community College remains trapped in a strange and frustrating bureaucratic serfdom — with a nearly helpless elected board, a bewildering budget and a fraction of the state support other rural community colleges receive. Gila County’s tax base and population numbers fall beneath legislative thresholds, prohibiting it from operating its own community college.
If Gila was treated the same as other rural community colleges in the state, its budget would more than double, and it would have control over key decisions including which classes to offer and employees to hire.
Even so, many Gila County community leaders have helped get the college to the threshold of a new era.
At the college’s inception, Ron Christensen spurred its growth as both a county supervisor and board member. Barbara Ganz, a lady brave enough to buck inertia and try something new, served as the college’s first dean. Current Rim Country board members Stephenson and Tom Loeffler continue the fight.
The college has grown from storefront classrooms that shook when nearby washing machines tumbled to a thriving campus on 52 acres of old Forest Service land ready to help thousands of students improve their lives and the region’s economy.
But every shred of progress has required fighting: Fighting with lawmakers, fighting for more money, fighting against those with control.
Since Gila County does not meet the state’s population and tax base thresholds, it contracts with Eastern Arizona College (Eastern) for academic and administrative services.
Gila was the only provisional college in the state until recently. The Arizona Legislature concocted the designation long ago because other community colleges didn’t want to share their funding, according to Loeffler.
Locals have little say over college
The state requires Gila to contract with a fully accredited college — that requirement alone generates local anguish.
Eastern controls Gila’s finances, curriculum and personnel decisions.
Gila board members have no hiring or firing authority, cannot employ staff, and must provide 30 days written notice to examine Eastern’s books, which they can only do once each year. The college must also pay about $1.5 million in overhead for the privilege of contracting with Eastern.
“The contract takes control of the college away from the board,” said Stephenson. “That is a serious problem.”
An e-mail from Senior Dean Stephen Cullen, obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, to a board member said it most concisely.
“As an EAC employee, I am required to take my directives from EAC and when possible or when allowed from the GCC governing board.”
The schools’ operating contract requires Gila to pay Eastern an extra 25 percent on top of all expenses. It also requires Gila to pay rent on buildings Gila County owns free and clear.
Gila rents county-owned buildings
In 2010, Eastern will charge Gila $63,000 to rent buildings the county owns, plus $16,000 in overhead.
Gila’s three deans will cost $350,000, plus an additional $87,000 in overhead to Eastern.
All told, Gila County taxpayers send about $1.5 million every year to Graham County purely in overhead, essentially a fee for the privilege of contracting with Eastern.
If Gila gained independence, its $4.5 million budget could more than double with additional state aid, and its administrative costs could decline from the arguably exorbitant 36 percent to the statewide average of 20 percent at other community colleges. The board would gain control over its campuses, and have a clear idea about the college’s finances. Last year, for instance, the college’s projected year-end balances swung from a $2 million deficit to $2 million in reserves.
For years, the House of Representatives has outdealt Gila. State lawmakers, county supervisors, and even reportedly some Gila board members have graduated from or worked with Eastern. Because of these ties, some Gila advocates wonder if those who say they’re working for Gila independence actually are.
Those advocates have grown frustrated with this college’s bizarre board, where decisions like offering scholarships and conducting levy elections are routinely and inexplicably overturned by whoever holds real power.
On the board, elected members must storm the podium during public comment periods to discuss topics the chairman refuses to place on the agenda.
Even board chairman Bob Ashford at times submits himself deferentially to Senior Dean Stephen Cullen’s will.
“So tell me ... did I jump soon enough??” Ashford asked Cullen in an e-mail concerning a request to place ownership of college buildings on the county supervisors’ agenda.
The veil of secrecy has grown thick during the past year.
Some Eastern staff have refused to return phone calls from Gila board members, as well as the media.
Neither Ashford nor Cullen have returned calls from this newspaper for months after complaining about “negative” coverage.
The college refused to provide electronic copies of its budget to a reporter, but e-mailed the same document to the advertising department to fulfill legal publication requirements.
Questions revolving around that published budget — including the $2 million in reserves it listed and blank spaces where tuition revenue should have been placed — have spurred much of the recent scrutiny from both board members in Payson and the public.
Ironically, the problems now plaguing the institution are the same that spurred county officials to initially ask voters to fund a provisional district — questions surrounding money management and a curriculum some believe is geared more toward senior citizens than toward helping today’s young Larry Stephensons.
Potential washed away
Community college graduates earn up to 30 percent more than high school grads. That translates into a 16 percent return on every dollar state and local governments invest in the schools, Time magazine reported in an article that wondered if two-year colleges could save America’s economy.
Gila trains local nurses, renewable energy technicians and firefighters. It offers lessons in Italian, an associate’s art degree and quilting classes. A small business development center helps emerging local businesses in an economically depressed community.
A study conducted by Houston Community College in Texas found that taxpayers received a return of more than $5 for every $1 invested in the college. That included higher tax receipts and avoided social costs.
Houston saw about $36.8 million in additional tax revenue that the study directly attributed to the community college.
In Gila County, however, a large share of the $1.6 million in tuition, $700,000 in state aid, and $3.4 million in tax dollars goes to Eastern — and only a portion of it comes back to Gila County.
“It’s just a scam,” said one-time board president Peter Kettner about the provisional college set up.
Gila founding president Ganz agreed. “I have worked at community colleges most of my career and community colleges are known to be economic engines,” she said.
However, Gila Community College’s existing set-up eviscerates that potential. “It is not an economic engine because most of the salaries and most of the money from Gila County taxes go to another county,” she added.
Read part two of our special seven-part report on GCC: Back to square on