A bill clearing the way for Gila Community College to gain its independence on Monday sailed through the Senate Education Committee on a unanimous vote.
A blue-ribbon contingent of supporters including Payson Mayor Kenny Evans and Gila County Supervisor Mike Pastor testified in support of SB 1213, which would provide a route for GCC to escape from its current, provisional college status.
Mayor Evans offered his testimony on the day he learned that his son, Rodger Evans, died in the Valley. GCC Board Member Thomas Loeffler noted that Evans hurried away as soon as he finished his testimony.
The unanimous vote seemed to validate bill author Sen. Sylvia Allen’s strategy in opening the door to independence for GCC, but putting off giving the college equal funding with existing rural community colleges. Allen said she feared increasing funding for GCC in the face of a wrenching state budget crisis would doom prospects for the bill.
The bill will make a quick trip through the Senate Rules Committee on Monday and could make it to the Senate floor later in the week, said Reed Spangler, a legislative analyst in Allen’s office.
Spangler said the testimony was overwhelmingly supportive. “You didn’t have any real objections and it had bipartisan support. That’s always a good sign,” said Spangler.
Only one person in a parade of speakers voiced any concern about the bill. Lisa Lyons, representing the Arizona Community College President’s Council, expressed concerns about whether GCC could afford to become independent without raising its current property tax rate, now among the lowest rates in the state.
Backers of independence say they believe that in the first few years at least, GCC would not have to raise its property tax rate to operate. If the district eventually qualified for equal funding, that could also mitigate any property tax increase.
However, some local officials like Gila County Supervisor Shirley Dawson have also expressed concerns that the costs of getting independently accredited could require a significant increase in the property tax rate.
The broad support for the bill in the key subcommittee augurs well for the bill’s prospects, despite the enveloping state budget crisis.
Gov. Jan Brewer’s proposed budget for the fiscal year starting in June would cut $73 million from community colleges, $170 million from universities and $650 million from the state’s health care programs for the poor.
Currently, GCC is one of two provisional community colleges in the state. As a provisional college, GCC must contract with an accredited community college district and cannot qualify for money from an equalization fund, intended to support rural community colleges. If GCC did have access to equalization funding, it would nearly double its $6 million budget.
GCC contracts with Eastern Arizona College, which hires and fires employees, decides what classes to offer, sets tuition and makes most other key decisions. GCC pays a 25 percent overhead fee to EAC on everything it spends.
SB 1213 would allow either the GCC board or residents to seek approval from voters of a move to independent status.
If voters approved the shift, the college would then start the long process of gaining independent accreditation. During the years it would take to get that accreditation, GCC would still have to contract with an existing community college — perhaps EAC.
SB 1213 says that GCC could not qualify for equalization funding until it actually gets accreditation, which could take at least five years.
However, backers of independence say the bill in the meantime would enable GCC to gain more control over its own programs and finances and make it eligible for other funding sources, including federal grants.
GCC remains one of the fastest growing community colleges in the state, but receives far less state support than any other district, forcing it to rely mostly on local property taxes and tuition.
Allen predicted that the cash-strapped state Legislature will this year perhaps overhaul the formulas it now uses to fund community colleges. In that case, GCC might qualify under the new formulas more quickly.
This year, the state provided about $155 million in support for community colleges, including some $35 million in equalization funding for rural colleges that often lack the property tax base to fully fund their programs, according to the Joint Legislative Budget Committee. Gov. Brewer’s proposal would slash state support by nearly 50 percent on top of reductions in the past two years, including a freeze on capital funding.
Gila Community College in the current budget year will get an estimated $713,000 in state aid, by far the lowest level of support in the state. By contrast, EAC gets $20 million, Navajo Community College gets $10 million, Coconino Community College gets $3.2 million and Cochise Community College gets $14 million, according to the JLBC.
Gila Community College also got just $35,000 in grants, according to the JLBC figures — again the lowest in the state. The next lowest grant total was Navajo Community College, with $5.5 million.
The Gila County property tax rate is less than half most of the other community college districts in the state and only a quarter as high as the districts with the highest rate — Graham (EAC) and Yuma/La Paz.