With a bill that would grant Gila Community College independence scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor later this week or early next, backers of the bill are asking residents to send Senators e-mails supporting the measure.
“This is the big push we need to get SB 1213 passed in the Senate,” said Gila Community College (GCC) board member Tom Loeffler.
If the Senate approves the bill, it will head to the House for approval and then to the governor.
The bill provides a path for GCC to end its current, provisional college status with Eastern Arizona College (EAC) and strike out as a separate entity.
The move would give board members control over how the college is run and keep county tax dollars in the district and not funneled out to Graham County, where EAC is located.
On Feb. 7, the Senate Education Committee unanimously approved the bill after hearing Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, Loeffler and several Payson residents speak in favor of its passage.
On Thursday, Loeffler gave an update on the college’s quest for independence to the Citizens Awareness Committee (CAC). After hearing his speech, most residents appeared in favor of the idea.
The biggest concern residents expressed was whether GCC could afford to become independent without raising the current property tax rate.
Loeffler and backers of the bill say in the first four years at least, GCC would not have to raise its property tax rate to operate independently. If the district eventually qualified for equal funding, it could get $6 million annually, which could mitigate any property tax increase.
But GCC President Bob Ashford and Gila County Supervisor Shirley Dawson have expressed concern over the cost of independence, Ashford saying it could cost as much as $10 million for accreditation.
“We should start the process without raising any taxes,” Loeffler said. “As a new district, if we wanted to raise taxes, if we needed money, it would go to the voters.”
Besides funding, the bill requires GCC or any other provisional college seeking independence to meet several benchmarks, including:
• A history of at least five years, which GCC has.
• At least 900 full-time students, which GCC has.
• Must actively be seeking accreditation, which it is.
• A member of the public or member of the board must request a public meeting to discuss independence.
When all of these requirements are met, the board will hold public meetings and then vote if it wants to break away. If approved, the school would gain independence.
Even if the college becomes independent, Loeffler does not see the school seeking accreditation right away.
The school would focus on hiring two to four faculty/administrators a year and once enough people were in place they would then seek accreditation, which could take four to six years and cost between $6 and $8 million.
Hiring an academic adviser is a priority, Loeffler said. Currently, GCC has no adviser with only faculty members offering advice on course selection as an aside.
In addition, with independence, control would be back in the hands of voters and not the EAC board.
“It would put the control back into the community,” Loeffler said. “We could expand programs.”
In the future, Loeffler sees the possibility of collaborating with a Payson ASU campus and sharing dorms or instructors.
Taxpayer money would also stay in the county.
Currently, GCC pays EAC a 25 percent overhead fee to manage the school and programs. Annually, $3.5 million tax dollars funnel out of Gila County to Graham County, Loeffler said.