Gila Community College pays rent on its own buildings. State law requires the college to print a budget, but doesn’t require the numbers to be accurate. And, the college’s legal counsel has said the board doesn’t need to follow its own policies, board member Tom Loeffler told about 20 people at a Citizens Awareness Committee meeting Tuesday.
The tale of GCC, although inspiring angst and anger among the concerned citizens who have fought for it, could make a stranger fall asleep while reading about it in the newspaper, people said at the meeting.
The complicated storyline full of lawsuits, boardroom sparring and secret allegiances often drowns in a sea of numbers, statutes and technicalities. Then, a sense of futility can defeat even the dogged.
Board members have no real power, Loeffler said at the meeting. “By contract, we’re almost powerless.”
For instance, the senior dean overturned a board decision to establish a tuition fund for high school seniors.
The dean is employed by Eastern Arizona College, along with every other employee on the GCC campuses. “Obviously, their allegiance will go to whoever is paying the paycheck,” said Loeffler.
“I think we can pick the school color and the school bird,” he joked. Beyond that, EAC has ultimate authority.
Recently, a new state task force headed by Sen. Sylvia Allen and composed of board members including Loeffler and Chairman Bob Ashford, along with Senior Dean Stephen Cullen and other community leaders has begun examining the logistics of gaining independence. Allen has said she wants legislation written and ready to introduce in the next session.
Allen faces a fight for re-election. Term-limited House Rep. Bill Konopnicki, who has flip-flopped on his support for GCC independence, will face Allen in the Republican primary.
The primary winner will face Payson resident, Democrat Elaine Bohlmeyer, who attended the CAC meeting and expressed her support for the college.
Loeffler said he has spoken with the local Democratic and Republican leaders, who have all agreed to support only candidates who promise to fight for GCC independence.
The CAC also sent a packet detailing the situation to the Higher Learning Commission, which accredits schools. Loeffler said the commission is seeking EAC’s side of the story before taking any action.
Meanwhile, GCC advocates must contend with a restrictive contract that awards GCC nearly no control.
The contract even offers EAC exclusive right to provide all post-secondary education in Gila County, which Loeffler said could present a problem if Arizona State University decides to build a campus here.
And since outside forces run the college with absolutely no checks or balances, Gila County interests have no way of extracting answers from EAC.
Over the past year, EAC has given Loeffler 10 different year-end budget estimates, ranging from $2 million short to $2 million ahead. “Take your pick,” read a sheet that had the estimates scattered at random around the page. “A $650,000 deficit? No, maybe we’re up $373,529.”
Today, board members have little idea where the college stands financially.
Loeffler said EAC won’t even return his phone calls to answer his questions about the budget.
“Any questions about the budget? ’Cause I have no idea. I can’t answer that,” Loeffler quipped.
One budget sheet EAC provided to board members showed a water bill that under one section inexplicably jumped from $390 one year to $1,500 the next — a 74-percent increase.
“If we had our own local college, we would control 100 percent of the money,” said Loeffler.
CAC co-chair Jim Hippel compared EAC’s bookkeeping to scrambled eggs. As far as he can tell, EAC doesn’t keep separate books for GCC.
Compounding the difficulty, Ashford has defeated attempts to dissect the budget. At a recent meeting, Loeffler asked about salary increases listed on one sheet. Ashford told him the meeting, at which the board approved its budget, was not for hashing out the particulars.
Ashford also controls the agenda, only allowing the items he OKs for discussion.
Gila County started its college after the state set population and tax base thresholds for counties wanting to operate colleges. Counties falling beneath the threshold with already existing colleges, like Graham, EAC’s home county, were grandfathered in.
Grandfathered counties that fell below the thresholds began receiving money to compensate for their small tax bases.
The state disburses this rural college money based on a formula — but each college also receives side pots of money negotiated long ago, according to Loeffler.
Because of this, a substantial funding inequity exists. EAC receives about half of the $30 to $40 million in rural schools money available every year. GCC received none.
Most frustrating for advocates — Graham County has even fewer people and a lower tax base than Gila, yet it receives nearly nine times the funding per student.
The state allowed Gila County voters to form a college district, but only if it contracted with another school and didn’t receive any state aid.
Loeffler said the state did this because other colleges didn’t want to share their money.
The contract, which prohibits GCC from hiring most employees, also allows EAC to make all purchases — and charge GCC a 25-percent surcharge for the privilege.
If GCC wants a copier, EAC buys it and charges taxpayers a extra 25-percent over the cost of the copier.
Plus, the contract requires EAC to rent buildings in Globe and Payson. The county owns these buildings. But EAC charges GCC the rent, plus 25 percent. This year, Gila County taxpayers paid nearly $80,000, including overhead, to rent buildings the county owns free and clear.
People at the meeting wondered why Globe isn’t incensed about this arrangement as well.
“To be fair to the people in Globe, I don’t think most of them know about it,” said Loeffler. Ashford, who is up for election this November, typically supports EAC, he added.
Ashford, along with the other two southern Gila County board members, often outvote Loeffler and other Payson board member Larry Stephenson.
But, if GCC wins independence, it would nullify the contract. Advocates now pin their hopes on that fight.