One of Rim Country’s representatives says independence for Gila Community College is an impossible fantasy despite good prospects for two potentially helpful bills.
The two bills that move Gila Community College closer to enjoying equal rights have moved out of the state House and into the Senate.
Meanwhile, the House recently defeated a bill that would have granted mother school Eastern Arizona College the right to grant four-year degrees. EAC administers GCC because Gila County cannot operate its own college.
Rep. Bill Konopnicki sponsored the three bills and said he planned to eventually reintroduce the EAC bill. He also said the two GCC bills, one giving the college bonding authority and the other allowing it to own buildings, enjoyed good prospects.
Even so, Konopnicki said this week that Gila County will never run its own college.
“It just isn’t going to happen and I wouldn’t want people to have false hopes,” he said. “It’s a miracle what we have.”
have.” Several years ago, the college nearly lost its provisional status.
Konopnicki had previously sounded skeptical of the college’s quest for equal funding, but always kept open the possibility of future legislation. Now, he says the state’s budget crisis has extinguished all hope.
“We have three people,” he said of the area’s two state representatives and one senator. “Three out of 90,” he continued. “The will isn’t there.”
The now-defunct EAC bill would have allowed the school to remain a community college, but award a limited number of bachelor’s degrees at half the price as state universities.
However, Konopnicki said the extra funding required didn’t kill the bill — the University of Phoenix squelched it out of fear of competition. He said he’s examining alternative ways to pass the bill, perhaps even later this session.
When asked why a bill to provide EAC more money to fund bachelor’s degrees was more politically feasible than giving GCC funding equal to other community colleges, he said, “It’s not even a fair question.”
EAC’s funding would come indirectly from university money, while extra funding
for GCC would eat into the community college pot. Universities, however, are also strapped for cash because of the state’s huge deficit.
Because Gila County’s tax base and population fall below legislatively set thresholds, the state bars it from operating a community college. GCC contracts with EAC to provide academic services, but receives less than half of the per-student funding as other rural community colleges.
GCC is also ineligible for a huge pot of money called equalization funds dedicated to helping fund rural community colleges. EAC is set to receive $19.8 million of that money next year, but Konopnicki said some lawmakers want to erase the formula.
“No additional community college will be added ever to the equalization funding,” he said. Meanwhile, GCC benefits from EAC receiving the money, he added. “It allows Eastern to offer some of the programs that are there.”
Konopnicki also said the rapidly rising cost of earning a four-year degree underscores the argument for allowing EAC to award bachelor’s degrees. “We have priced the cost of higher education out of the hands
of most middle class families.”
GCC board member Tom Loeffler said Konopnicki didn’t seem to be representing Rim Country’s interests.
“One battle does not make a war and one legislator does not make a law,” he said.
For GCC to receive equal funding, “we’d be taking nickels and dimes away from the other colleges,” Loeffler said.
It would cost the state about an extra $2 million to make GCC’s funding similar to other rural community colleges, out of the $145 million spent on all community colleges last year. That’s about 1 percent of all community college funding.
Konopnicki has steered two other GCC-related bills through the House, however, and he said the Senate could pick them up within the next month.
Last week, the House approved one bill that would grant GCC bonding authority. The college had seen expansive growth until enrollment dropped this semester, but lacked the ability to finance new buildings.
The other bill would allow the college to take ownership of its buildings from the county. GCC board members have said that owning the buildings would represent a step toward becoming a full-fledged college.
Konopnicki said both bills “have a good possibility.”