Gila Community College’s quest to gain independence could ultimately depend on how well diverse factions unify.
The college’s board must unite, task force members will have to agree on a plan and residents will ultimately have to band together and vote to approve independence.
Sen. Sylvia Allen plans to introduce legislation in January that would allow Gila County to run a fully accredited community college.
The legislation, if passed, would open the possibility, but Gila County voters and the board would ultimately have to continue the push until this long-held dream could become reality.
With a shortage of unity, the effort could languish, said GCC board member Tom Loeffler.
“We now have to go out and start selling the concept to the public and also the Legislature,” said Loeffler. If lawmakers see widespread support, they might be more likely to pass the bill.
Allen agreed. “The accreditation agency back east is not going to help you if they see the community is divided, the board is divided,” she said. “Somewhere down the line, your community, your county has to see why it’s important to invest in this school. That’s ultimately the question that’s going to be asked of them.”
Allen has been named president pro tempore in the Senate, which means she acts as president during the senate president’s absence. The leadership position leaves her with considerable power, which Allen said could help move the GCC bill forward.
Also, newly elected House representatives Brenda Barton and Chester Crandell ran with Allen on the so-called ABC ticket. The unity in the Legislature leaves the discord to Gila County.
Divisiveness between northern and southern Gila County has at times threatened to derail the entire process.
In October, GCC’s board tabled a simple resolution that made official its support for independence. The board later passed the resolution, but the delay bruised the project’s progress and spurred Loeffler to resign from the task force.
Meanwhile, task force member Dan Haapala has also resigned. Allen named former Payson Mayor Barbara Brewer to represent the northern part of the county.
On the GCC board, members have gained notoriety for passing or defeating measures on a three-to-two split, with southern Gila County board members consistently outvoting northern Gila County board members.
Recently, the task force subgroup led by Senior Dean Stephen Cullen supplied Allen with the plan for independence it created.
The plan has not yet been made public.
Allen called it “aggressive” and said its use of Northland Pioneer College — a much larger institution — as a model was impractical. She has asked for revisions, and said that she wants the plan to move more slowly and work with existing financial resources.
“We need to find a smaller college to model,” said Allen.
Cullen’s plan requires voters to approve a large tax hike to support an immediate staff expansion. Under Cullen’s plan, the college would apply for accreditation about two years after lawmakers passed the necessary legislation and voters approved the language and the tax increase.
College advocates wonder if Cullen purposely created a plan with a huge tax hike knowing taxpayers would likely refuse the increase. Cullen works for GCC’s parent school Eastern Arizona College. Thatcher residents reportedly don’t support the plan because EAC would lose out on the money GCC now pays to it in overhead. EAC officials, however, have never publically commented on the potential of GCC’s independence.
Loeffler devised a second plan that required no upfront money. Instead, it would expand staff gradually, adding only new staff members that the college could pay for with its ordinary 2-percent tax increase allowed of all government taxing entities.
Also, the college would save the 25 percent overhead to EAC it normally pays on all costs. Loeffler says that by converting maintenance people from EAC to GCC employees that alone would save between $60,000 and $70,000 annually. The college could redirect that money into creating essential departments such as bookkeeping.
After about four years of adding staff and taking on responsibility, the college could apply for accreditation under Loeffler’s plan.
Ultimately, task force members will have to debate the plans and choose the best option.
Allen sees the underlying tension between north and south. “I think its been there for years,” she said. “It’s not just about the school. I think it’s about a lot more than that.”
Meanwhile, the question of how much it would cost GCC to provide the services EAC now provides remains a mystery. Loeffler said he has received conflicting numbers and still can’t answer the question.
January’s potential legislation marks a separate problem from how GCC will gain accreditation once lawmakers give them the opportunity.
“Once I remove the barriers for the college,” said Allen, “then it’s really going to be up to the community to continue driving this issue.”
The legislation will involve eight benchmarks that GCC already meets, but that other provisional community colleges could attain if they, too, wanted to apply for accreditation.
For example, a community college would need its own buildings, a certain number of full-time students and would have to provide academic, vocational and enrichment services to the community.
Right now, state law prohibits counties that don’t meet thresholds for tax base and population from operating independent schools. The thresholds increase each year, making it nearly impossible for Gila County to ever reach them.
If lawmakers pass the legislation, county citizens would have to approve the moving forward and applying for accreditation. Either a citizen’s initiative or GCC board action would authorize a countywide vote.
Citizens would also approve a timeline, according to Loeffler, although he wasn’t sure how the measure would be worded.
After the college applies for accreditation, the process takes another seven to 10 years to complete. However, several years could pass before the college is even ready to apply.
Voters would likely be asked for a tax increase at some point, but probably not until the economy improves. Gila County taxpayers pay the second lowest rate in the state for their community college.
Usually, taxing entities can only increases property taxes by 2 percent annually. Because GCC would be transitioning into a fully accredited college, the board could ask voters for a one-time, larger increase. Allen said timing on that question is crucial.
“Don’t go ask that question in this climate,” said Allen. “Save that question for when the people are ready.”
To prepare for its accreditation application, GCC would create essential departments such as the registrar. Once applying, a school gains temporary accreditation and can function as an independent school. In the meantime, GCC would need to contract with a fully-fledged school. It could negotiate a contract with EAC, or shop around for another offer.
Advocates have worked for GCC’s independence for a decade, and at times the goal has seemed unreachable.
“People just can’t give up,” said Allen. Lawmakers will likely pass the legislation since it wouldn’t cost the state any additional money. For the first time since the effort began, success looks plausible.
“This is a matter of a freedom issue,” said Allen. “People have a right.”