Perhaps as early as this week, Sen. Sylvia Allen will introduce legislation “clearing the roadblocks” to independence for Gila Community College.
“My role is to remove roadblocks that the state has put in the way of a provisional college, so the legislation is going to be pretty clean and simple — I’m not going to try to start dictating how the transition happens,” said Sen. Allen, who represents Rim Country and takes over this session as the Senate President Pro Tem, the number two leadership position in the senate.
She said the legislation will repeal the existing formula that makes it essentially impossible for a rural county without a community college district to establish a college that can qualify for various forms of state support. To prevent other rural community colleges from opposing the law, she said her legislation would phase in full state support for a provisional college that becomes independent over the course of four to 10 years.
Allen said she also will introduce a bill in this session that will make even provisional community college districts eligible for federal workforce development grants. Under the existing federal formula, that legislation could result in a roughly $300,000 windfall for GCC.
“I feel very confident we can get this resolved and that it will pass,” said Sen. Allen of the two different bills. Her leadership position in the senate will allow her to make sure the bill goes to a friendly committee.
Currently, GCC operates as a provisional college administered and accredited by Eastern Arizona College in Safford. EAC hires the administration and faculty, decides programs and class offerings, sets most core policies and charges GCC an overhead fee of about 25 percent.
GCC remains one of only two provisional community college districts in the state, which means it can’t tap into a rich pot of money the Legislature established in an “equalization” fund, which offers additional state support to compensate for low property values in rural areas. If GCC had been included in that equalization fund originally, it would now have an extra $6 million annually — doubling its budget.
Allen said her bill would make it possible for GCC to become independent immediately, with the support of the voters. However, the district would then have to spend years of additional effort to win accreditation and qualify for equalization funding.
Of course, by then the state may have dramatically altered the equalization formula as a result of a budget crisis that has prompted some lawmakers to consider an overhaul of the funding system for the universities and community colleges.
In the meantime, Allen said she would urge GCC to continue to contract with EAC for credentialing and core services as it starts the long processes of getting credentialed on its own.
“I personally feel like GCC should continue to use EAC through this process,” said Allen, whose district includes EAC.
The Safford district operated as a Mormon college before seeking support from the state as a community college district. As a result of the formulas established at that time, EAC gets the lion’s share of the money in the equalization pool and therefore more state support per student than any district in the state.
She said that GCC has reaped considerable academic and financial advantages so far in its relationship with EAC and “you do have to allow EAC to have a say in how this transition happens. If we can work things out with EAC and there can be a kind of team spirit, it will be beneficial.”
Allen said she decided to delay the newly independent district’s access to equalization funding to avoid the opposition of either other rural colleges or cash-strapped lawmakers.
“Normally, $6 million wouldn’t be a big issue, but in the climate we’re experiencing when we’re so desperate for money, it becomes an issue.”
She said the legislation would allow local voters to approve the independence of a provisional college that has operated for at least five years, has at least 900 students and has at least started the accreditation process.
The board of the provisional college could launch the move toward independence or a voter referendum could force the issue.
That provision seems to take into account the complicated division on the GCC board.
The two GCC board members from northern Gila County — Tom Loeffler and Larry Stephenson — both strongly favor independence. The board majority, led by Chairman Bob Ashford, has expressed more reservations and insists that the district is getting a good deal financially as a result of its relationship with EAC.
The entire board recently supported a motion favoring independence, but divisions remain acute. Legislation Allen has drafted would allow a group to launch a ballot measure to win independence for the college even over the opposition of a the GCC governing board.