Gila County leaders have struggled since the start to operate a legitimate college, and the battles haven’t changed much over the years.
But despite leaders’ frequent feelings of futility, current efforts may have moved the college closer to gaining full accreditation than ever before.
Perhaps most importantly, State Sen. Sylvia Allen recently started a task force aimed at crafting a statute to free the college, and legislative staffers have already begun drafting it. Allen wants to introduce the proposal in January.
Also, Payson’s Citizens Awareness Committee has taken Gila on as a primary challenge, sending letters to state officials like the auditor and attorney general. The group has asked the agency responsible for accrediting community colleges for an investigation, and scheduled debates between state legislative candidates to elevate the issue.
Another promising development is the potential redistricting that could follow the release of census figures this winter. Advocates look forward to the dismantling of north versus south voting blocs if Payson gains a seat on the college’s board.
Currently, southern Gila County has three seats, despite Payson’s larger population. While the Globe and Miami-area population has stayed stagnant, Payson’s has continued to grow and local politicos eagerly await the redistricting that could sway the balance of power up north.
On the task force, 10 members including Gila board members Tom Loeffler and Bob Ashford, along with Gila Senior Dean Stephen Cullen, several community members and even the president of Northland Pioneer College, are working to draft legislation to introduce in January.
Fall’s senate race, however, could determine the legislation’s future.
Incumbent Allen faces a Republican challenger in the upcoming primary. Rep. Bill Konopnicki will vie for the seat, but some college advocates question his commitment to Gila. The successful Republican will face Payson Democrat Elaine Bohlmeyer in the general election. Bohlmeyer has also said she supports independence.
Konopnicki has flip-flopped on his support for the college. At one point, he called the existing college a “miracle,” before later saying the college could gain independence with a careful effort that would avoid a move by unsupportive lawmakers to disband it or wipe out the lucrative pot of rural schools funding. Konopnicki says some legislators have eyed this money as Arizona has slashed its budget in the past few years.
Konopnicki says his support once helped save the college. The original legislation creating the provisional college was at one point due to expire, but Konopnicki helped make the status permanent.
Some advocates, however, remain skeptical. “I think he’s been a large part of the problem,” said Payson resident Lew Levenson, who has worked on the college’s behalf. Levenson wondered if Konopnicki had pushed for Gila’s reunion with Eastern in 2005, and also speculated that Konopnicki urged Pima to step back from seeking a contract renewal.
Another concerned citizen, and Gila County’s Democratic Chair, Chris Tilley, also worried about the new legislation’s fate should Konopnicki beat Allen. “If he wins, he will probably kill this,” she said.
“Unless one has very strong ties to EAC, it actually makes sense for Gila County to have their own college,” she continued. “I think that’s what has been holding up the works — that some people have very strong ties to EAC.”
Konopnicki used to work for Eastern.
Other candidates running for the state Legislature say they support the college. Tilley polled all the Democratic candidates about their views, even sitting them down and explaining the situation if they lacked familiarity. Levenson informally asked the Republican candidates, and said the issue isn’t partisan. “It wasn’t because Republicans are doing it. It’s because people are doing it,” Levenson said.
Tom Loeffler says the unity encourages him. “It isn’t often that we get both parties to work together on such an important solution,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Meanwhile, the CAC sent a packet of information to the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits community colleges. The packet included newspaper articles and letters from Gila faculty complaining about the climate of fear on campus and other issues related to Eastern’s management. As of press time, the commission had written back, alerting the CAC it was waiting for a response from Eastern before deciding its next step.
While leaders hunt options, board member Loeffler points to the college’s successes. Up until this semester’s enrollment drop, the college’s enrollment had been growing rapidly — 26 percent from 2008 to 2009.
About 24 Payson High School students will attend Gila next year, Loeffler said.
The college continues to offer enrichment classes for the community-at-large, a nursing curriculum that allows high school students to begin training before formally entering college, and traditional academic classes for other students wanting to continue their education.
The college’s Small-Business Development Center has created or saved about 55 local jobs in each of the past two years. The center also offers services to business owners wanting to expand, start or save their business.
Throughout the past decade, legions of county visionaries have fought for this college. From the first efforts to build a real campus to the current fight for accreditation and equality, leaders have grown tired and frustrated of waging this seemingly static war. Then, a new generation took over and continued to fight.
Success only comes to those who refuse to give up. When Gila gains freedom, it will have taken generations to build this school.
For every nurse that places a tasseled hat on her head at graduation, and for every first generation college student that signs up for classes, these leaders will have won the good sort of war — the fight for freedom.
Read part six of our special seven-part report on GCC: Outdated technology