Gila Community College’s record hike in tuition this year apparently cost the school more than it yielded.
On the other hand, despite the tuition backfire — the school’s finances appear to have happily, but mysteriously, improved.
Those two developments emerged on Thursday during yet another board meeting marked by confusion and split votes.
On a 3-2 vote, the board again rejected a plea to re-open the contract with Eastern Arizona College, which administers GCC. If GCC doesn’t request renegotiations by the end of April, the college can request no changes in the contract for two years.
The board did agree, however, to schedule a special meeting sometime in April to consider proposals to at least partially roll back the tuition increase and perhaps also the decision to reduce the tuition discount for senior citizens.
Perhaps the best piece of good news came in board chairman Bob Ashford’s report that the college will likely end the fiscal year with a $50,000 surplus — even without dipping into the $954,000 contingency fund.
The offhand release of the estimate took board members by surprise.
The last estimate provided by EAC suggested the college would end the year $750,000 in the hole, which would have consumed almost all of the contingency fund.
Eastern Arizona College administers GCC, which is the state’s only provisional community college. EAC prepares GCC’s budget, which includes a 25 percent overhead fee paid to EAC. Initially, EAC administrators projected a $2 million deficit, but changed the figure to $750,000 later without providing detailed analysis.
“All we could do was listen to what (Ashford) reported,” said Payson board member Tom Loeffler, “because it wasn’t on the agenda.”
The budget turnaround stemmed in part from the imposition of furloughs on all college employees. That unpaid time off saved the district an estimated $526,000 for the year.
The board also tried to figure out whether a 45 percent tuition increase imposed in the past 12 months had paid off, given a stunning 26 percent drop in full-time enrollment this semester.
Loeffler offered figures on the impact of the tuition increase that suggested the college had actually lost money, given the decline in state support connected to the plunge in enrollment, which mostly hit the Globe campus. Full-time enrollment dropped 11 percent on the Payson campus, but 36 percent in Globe.
Estimates provided when the board approved the tuition increase suggested total tuition revenue would rise from $1.4 million to $1.6 million. Budget planners assumed enrollment would decline about 20 percent, so the tuition increase would bring in an extra $220,000 overall. Instead, the much larger than anticipated enrollment drop actually drove total projected tuition revenues about $51,000 lower than last year.
The real financial loss will probably be much bigger, said Loeffler, since the state also provides a subsidy for each student, which will decline with the enrollment.
In addition, Loeffler said he had a hard time finding a way to isolate the impact of eliminating free tuition for seniors taking only one or two classes.
The enrollment trend at the Wellness Center provides one clue, he said. The enrollment in the program among those older than 55 dropped from 776 to 376 — a 51 percent decline. That included a 167-person decline on the Payson Campus.
The college collected about $30,000 in tuition, but lost about $25,000 in state aid due to the enrollment decline. So in that program dominated by part-time seniors, charging tuition resulted in a small savings but a huge drop in participation.
“We are supposed to be reaching out to the community and addressing their needs and desires, but obviously we’re now turning them away,” he said.
The most vigorous debate of the day came when the conversation turned to a proposal to hire a part-time accountant to help the board gather and analyze budget numbers.
Board members have in the past complained that EAC does not provide enough information on which to base decisions like tuition increases, furloughs and program cuts — as evidenced by the still mysterious transformation of the original $2 million deficit into a $50,000 surplus.
Loeffler proposed financing the new, half-time position by reopening the contract talks with EAC to make the three deans that run GCC direct employees of Gila Community College, instead of contract employees for EAC.
If GCC didn’t have to pay the 25 percent overhead fee on the salaries of those three deans, it would save $87,000 — more than enough to fund the new position.
The board majority rejected the proposal by the same 3-2 margin that has prevailed on most major issues. The two Payson-area board members once again dissented from the united front presented by the three board members with districts based in southern Gila County.