Ripped off again.
Alas, Gila Community College is almost getting used to it.
That sums up the impact of a recent vote in a key state House committee that finally made GCC eligible for money other colleges have gotten for years — but only after the committee eliminated two-thirds of the money GCC should have received.
The committee also approved a second bill that would make it possible for GCC to eventually gain its independence, but even then it would remain a second-class citizen when it comes to dividing up the workforce development money — or getting extra help through equalization aid available to other rural college districts.
The committee action came in the shadow of a House vote that cut overall state support for community colleges by two-thirds.
On the job training front, Sen. Sylvia Allen’s SB 1217 would have made GCC eligible for some $280,000 in workforce development funding approved by the state’s voters in 2000, funded by an increase in the statewide sales tax.
However, the House Higher Education Committee responded to complaints by representatives of other community colleges and threatened to bury the bill.
Sen. Allen then bowed to that opposition and said she would amend the bill so GCC wouldn’t get the base payment of $200,000 received by the state’s other 11 community college districts — which divide up $13 million annually. The money goes to support job training and certification programs, like GCC’s nursing program.
“They are bleeding us to death,” said GCC board member Thomas Loeffler in a letter to Allen.
“We have already given up equalization aid that goes to other rural colleges, which could be about $6 million to us. Now they want us to give up another $200,000. No other community college in this state has ever been asked to give up so much to even exist.”
The bill must still pass a vote of the full House and then go back to the Senate for approval of the amendment, since the Senate passed SB 1217 without the limit on funding.
The elimination of the base payment will affect both Gila County and Santa Cruz County, the only two provisional community college districts in the state.
The Legislature years ago slammed the door on the creation of new community college districts, by establishing an impossible-to-meet formula. The House committee used the pretext of that Catch-22 law to deny GCC full funding for the workforce development funds, although Gila County’s taxpayers have for the past decade paid the sales tax surcharge that benefits students in the rest of the state.
Loeffler said that under the terms of the workforce training bill, GCC wouldn’t get full funding even if it becomes independent as a result of a second bill the House committee approved.
That bill, also introduced by Sen. Allen, will provide a way for GCC to eventually gain its independence.
The bill would allow GCC to gain its freedom, although it would still have to contract with another college for the 5-10 years it will take to gain independent accreditation. Currently, GCC contracts with Eastern Arizona College, which controls the curriculum, class offerings and budget and tacks a 25 percent overhead fee on everything GCC spends.
However, the House Higher Education Committee also insisted on an amendment on the independence bill that would make it clear that even after GCC gains its independence, it still won’t receive money from a $35 million equalization fund that provides extra help for four rural community college districts.
The state equalization fund next year will provide $7.8 million to Cochise County, $17.5 million to Graham County, $6.6 million to Navajo County and $2.9 million to Yuma and La Paz counties, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.
The state set up the equalization fund to make up for the low assessed valuation in rural counties where the federal government owns most of the land, which means the districts pay far less property tax. Based on enrollment and assessed valuation, GCC would have qualified for $6 million from that equalization fund — doubling its budget.
Allen accepted that amendment as well, mostly because she believed that her original bill already barred GCC from the equalization fund by not stating explicitly the college would become eligible once it gained independence. She didn’t try to get equalization funding for fear the community college districts already in the pool would kill the bill entirely.
However, the House Committee on Higher Education chairman wanted the ban on equalization funding stated explicitly in the bill.
Advocates for the college have long expected the ban on equalization funding, but the sharp reduction in workforce development funding felt like a fresh insult.
All the other community college districts in the state get the $200,000 workforce development base payment, plus additional funding for each student. Annual payments range from $412,000 in Graham County to $6.7 million in Maricopa County.
If both Gila County and Santa Cruz County had received the same funding as other colleges statewide, it would have reduced payments to Graham County by $10,000 and payments to Maricopa County by $290,000.
Loeffler argued that the loss of two-thirds of its share of workforce development money was blatantly unfair to both students and taxpayers in Gila County.
“Gila has one of the highest unemployment rates in the state and needs to train workers for future jobs. Payson, for one, has potential businesses that are looking to locate here, but we need to train workers and keep our high school graduates here as part of our labor force.”
He said the other colleges who blocked a fair distribution of the workforce training money used “flawed” logic.
“They say we should not get the workforce development funds because we are not accredited. Workforce development should be used to train individuals for a job, not a degree. GCC does not need to be accredited to train workers to install solar equipment and neither does the instructor. Their argument is a smoke screen because they don’t want to give up any money — even if it’s a very small amount of money for them.”
However, adding both Gila and Santa Cruz counties to the pool would reduce funding for the other colleges by between .03 and .09 of 1 percent.
“Enough is enough,” wrote Loeffler in an appeal to Allen to fight for a new amendment when the workforce development bill goes to the House floor, perhaps this week. “We should stand fast and inform the senators and representatives of the facts. The voters of Gila County have been funding all the other public community colleges in this state for 10 years and have received nothing in return. It’s time to play fair. SB 1217 isn’t going to cost the state any money. But it will cost our students the chance they need.”