A successful bid by Gila Community College for independence and equal state funding could cost the state an additional $9 million under the current formula, according to board member Tom Loeffler who attended a recent task force meeting.
However, advocates keep searching for ways to win the college full accreditation without costing the state.
A new state task force headed by Sen. Sylvia Allen met for the first time May 19, and two subcommittees have formed to work on accreditation, legal issues and other steps necessary for the college to become independent.
A June 16 meeting will take place in Globe, and a July 22 meeting in Payson.
At the recent meeting, legislative staffers said that GCC’s entrance into a special pool of money that funds rural colleges would change the formula and cost the state about $9 million in 2011, said Loeffler.
“That would be a tough sell,” said Loeffler, considering the state just slashed billions from its budget.
Allen said perhaps GCC could examine ways of transitioning into full accreditation.
“It seemed like everybody was positive and willing to work hard to start figuring out how we do this,” she said.
The calculations released at the meeting were offered to quantify a complex problem in which many many solutions will be considered. The group moves toward developing legislation to free GCC later this summer.
Decades ago, the state set tax base and population thresholds required to operate a community college.
Among counties that fell below the thresholds, those that already operated colleges were grandfathered into the new legislation, while the counties without colleges were prevented from forming them.
The tax base threshold for 2011 is $1.7 billion, although it increases annually. The required population is 40,000 people over 15 years old.
After legislators imposed the thresholds, grandfathered colleges began receiving equalization funds to compensate for the small tax base. Loeffler said this money was in addition to side pots of money lobbied for by various stakeholders.
Eventually, the state authorized GCC to operate if it contracted with another college in a so-called provisional district, but prohibited it from receiving equalization funds.
Consequently, GCC received about $800 per full-time student this year while, for example, Eastern Arizona College received more than $9,000 per student, according to information from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
If GCC gained independence, it would receive an extra $6 million in equalization money. For perspective, the school’s entire FY11 budget is $6.1 million.
However, other schools could also get more equalization money because Gila County’s entrance into the pool would lower the tax base threshold and change the formula. EAC, for instance, could see an extra $1 million. All told, freeing GCC could cost the state $9 million, said Loeffler.
This pool of money for rural colleges is already precarious, state Rep. Bill Konopnicki has said. Lawmakers have eyed it as the state’s finances have crumbled. Touching that money is politically difficult, but GCC stakeholders say they want to arrive at a solution that helps everybody.
In 2009, EAC received 53 percent of the $28 million equalization funds available. Task force members are considering how to revamp the formula to disburse the money more equitably. However, Loeffler said any changes must proceed carefully.
“If we do something, we have to do something that is not going to jeopardize other colleges’ funding. We are looking for a win-win approach,” he said.
Plus, the funding is more complex than one simple formula. The main formula bases equalization funding on the difference between a county’s tax base and the state threshold required to operate a community college.
However, each of the four colleges that receive equalization funds also receive a side pot of money for which stakeholders lobbied long ago.
For example, years back, EAC leaders contemplated closing the Thatcher college, but the state offered money to save it, said Loeffler. When equalization funding began, EAC started receiving the money allotted for rural colleges in addition to the previously negotiated side pots of money.
Part of the challenge of inserting GCC into the equalization formula is meeting the needs of all the interests who fought for the side pots of money, said Loeffler. Even if awarded entry into the rural schools money, GCC would not be privy to one of these side sums.
“When we meet to try to figure this thing out, we’re going to see who each of these stakeholders are and why they get this pot of money, and make sure we don’t cripple them or they’ll vote against it,” said Loeffler.
Before the next meeting, two subcommittees will look into issues surrounding GCC’s quest for independence.
One subcommittee, headed by Senior Dean Stephen Cullen and including GCC board Chairman Bob Ashford and Northland Pioneer College President Jeanne Swarthout, will examine how much money and how many positions would be required to operate an independent college. GCC now contracts with EAC for academic and administrative services, paying the school about 25 percent overhead on all expenditures.
Another subcommittee composed of Loeffler, county Superintendent of Schools Linda O’Dell, Swarthout, and Payson residents Dan Haapala and Peter Kettner will focus on identifying statutes that would need modifying and issues surrounding the accreditation process.