Gila Community College’s Yellow Brick Road to independence requires only Gov. Jan Brewer’s signature to take shape after approval by both the House and Senate this week.
However, the triumph was shadowed by a legislative slap in the face on another bill, which will give GCC only a fraction of the workforce development money other colleges have been collecting for a decade.
The legislation will provide GCC with about $80,000 in added funding next year, which will only partially offset a separate $250,000 in funding cuts approved by the Legislature as part of its budget for 2011-12.
Senate President Pro Tem Sen. Sylvia Allen, who represents Rim Country, had maneuvered the two bills through the Senate with overwhelming support and $280,000 in funding for workforce development.
However, other community colleges ambushed the bill in the House, where Rim Country’s freshmen representatives — Chester Crandell and Brenda Barton — played no role in helping the bill along.
As a result, not only did the final bills bar GCC from collecting an estimated $6 million annually from a fund set up to bolster rural community colleges, but it won’t get full funding for vocational classes until it gains both independence and independent accreditation — which could take a decade.
“The rationale was so lame,” said GCC board member Tom Loeffler, “that I couldn’t believe any legislator would ever accept that. Well, I shouldn’t say that. Let’s say, it would seem odd that a rational person would ever accept that argument.”
Other college districts have collected the vocational money from the special state fund for a decade, but until now, GCC has been barred by its status as a provisional college.
Loeffler, who played the lead role in pushing for the bills, said independence came at a steep price.
He estimated that the two restrictions combined will cost the district about $62 million in state support in the next decade.
The legislation clears the way for GCC to seek an escape from the second-class citizen status as a provisional college, which means it must contract with another college district to offer accredited classes that will transfer to a four-year university.
Currently, GCC contracts with Eastern Arizona College in Safford, which collects a 25 percent overhead fee on everything GCC spends.
GCC currently has a budget of $6 million, which will decline by 4 percent as a result of the $250,000 in cuts and new fees included in the state budget for 2011-12. Ironically, GCC already gets so little help from the state that the cut will have far less impact than on most other districts in the state.
In the past three years, GCC’s support from the state has dwindled from $800,000 to $480,000, despite a sharp rise in enrollment. The college has compensated for the drop with furloughs and cuts and the highest full-time student tuition in the state, although the college also has the lowest tuition for many part-time students and free tuition for most seniors. GCC also has one of the lowest property tax rates in the state and operates at perhaps the lowest per-student cost of any district.
Loeffler said the law allowing the college to become independent will take effect in September.
If the deeply divided GCC board votes to seek independence, it can start the perhaps decade-long process of gaining its own accreditation. In the meantime, it will still have to contract with another community college district to offer those crucial academic classes that lead to an AA degree or transfer to a four-year school.
The board will meet next Tuesday, but that meeting will likely revolve around a deep split on the board about the adoption of rules and policies. The board repealed all its policies on a divided vote in December and hasn’t yet replaced them.
If the board ultimately votes in favor of independence, the first step will be renegotiating the contract with EAC or some other community college.
The EAC contract gives administrators in Safford control over GCC’s budget, tuition, staff and class offerings. The GCC board has often fought for even basic budget information.
An independent GCC could strike a new agreement that would give the board control over the budget and many staff members, but the accredited contracting college would still control the requirements and faculty offering transferrable courses.
Loeffler said the long, intricate process of trying to get the two crucial GCC bills through the Legislature offered a mixture of triumph and frustration.