Gov. Jan Brewer this week signed a bill to swing open the door to Gila Community College’s independence, capping years of effort that once seemed like an exercise in tilting windmills.
Looming budget problems this week overshadowed the singular legislative triumph that promises to eventually restore local control and increased state support to the low-cost but fast-growing college.
“The bill doesn’t go into effect until September,” said GCC board member Tom Loeffler, who worked closely with the Senate Pro Tem President Sylvia Allen to wheedle the bill through a distracted Legislature. “But before we can become independent, we have to get our financial house in order.”
GCC board members learned this week that the college faces a painful, $800,000 drop in revenue in the upcoming fiscal year — a roughly 13 percent hit to its $6 million budget.
The decline came mostly from a $250,000 cut imposed by the Legislature in state support and a $200,000 cut as a result of the loss of federal stimulus loans. The district will also this year have to do without a $200,000 annual payment from Eastern Arizona College as a result of a lawsuit settlement reached five years ago.
GCC is one of only two provisional community colleges in the state and must contract with EAC to provide its accreditation to ensure class credits will transfer to any four-year college. EAC charges a 25 percent overhead fee on almost everything GCC spends, and controls the staff, budget and curriculum.
The governor’s signature on SB 1213 will eventually allow the GCC board to vote for independence and then begin the 10-year process of seeking independent accreditation.
During that period, the college will still need to contract with EAC or some other community college.
Eventually, the newly independent college can also ask the voters for a one-time increase in the district’s property tax limit, now the lowest in the state.
In her struggle to get two GCC-related bills through the Legislature, Sen. Allen accepted amendments that will permanently lock GCC out of a big pool of money to help rural colleges and two-thirds of the money other colleges get for workforce development funding.
In signing the bills, Gov. Brewer said “I would like to personally thank Senator Sylvia Allen for providing the leadership needed to see this issue to completion. Her diligence and willingness to work through the issues and bring the stakeholders of Gila County together in one common effort should be commended.”
Brewer also signed SB 1217, which will provide GCC with $80,000 in new funding to support vocational programs — but will deny the college an extra $200,000 the rest of the colleges in the state get until GCC finally gets its own accreditation.
Brewer hailed the potential independence of GCC as a way to meet her goal of doubling the number of college degrees awarded to Arizona students by 2020, especially in rural areas.
Loeffler predicted that the rest of the GCC board will support a move toward independence, once the college gets through this year’s looming budget crisis.