It is not what could be called a ringing endorsement for Gila Community College independence. In fact, it is not an endorsement at all; rather the Gila County Board of Supervisors has given a nod toward independence for GCC.
At its Jan. 18 meeting, supervisors supported changes to state statutes to “create a reasonable pathway which would allow a provisional college district, such as the Gila County Provisional Community College District, to transition to a fully organized community college district.”
Tom Loeffler, a member of the GCC board of directors, told the supervisors GCC already has almost as many students as its “parent” Eastern Arizona College and may surpass it in two to three years.
Independence will keep local tax money in the county, he said. “The college budget is $6.1 million, and of that, $2.6 million comes back to the county in salaries and miscellaneous.” The remaining $3.5 million leaves the county.
“That $3.5 million, combined with the multiplier effect, could help our economy and job market in these hard times,” he said.
An independent college could also get about $300,000 a year in federal work force development funds, Loeffler said.
Local control offers another benefit — make the college’s elected representatives accountable to local taxpayers, Loeffler said. Eastern Arizona now makes most of the decisions.
Loeffler told the supervisors an independent GCC would spur economic growth and cut costs.
“Our first hire would be a financial director to get a handle on our finances,” Loeffler said. “The current board needs a detailed budget, along with a multi-year business plan. Voters deserve the most for their tax dollars.”
Loeffler said an independent community college would not require an increase in property taxes. “If we move in a controlled fashion and add positions and functions as funds allow over the next four years, we can increase the staff needed to function independently without raising property taxes. With the increase in student enrollment and the normal inflation of the tax levy, we can add two to four positions per year for the next four years. So, no new taxes.”
Loeffler said the college would not be accredited immediately and so must remain affiliated with EAC or another college until an independent GCC was certified as offering courses appropriate for awarding degrees.
“I strongly support the community college system,” Supervisor Shirley Dawson said. “There is no way that I want to stand in the way of Gila Community College continuing to grow and that’s one of the reasons I’ve been very cautious with San Carlos as they want to take their branch of Gila Community College and become their own community college.
“I believe that the study reflects the fact that just the challenge of accreditation is extremely expensive and a long-term project” that could cost millions, Dawson said.
Dawson said due to the state budget crisis “this is not a time for working out legislation on the run. It needs to be carefully thought out and carefully addressed ... I question whether this is the time and season for such a move.”
Dawson expressed doubts about the promise that an independent GCC would not cost taxpayers any more money.
“There is no way that this can become an independent community college without it being a significant tax increase to taxpayers. The savings is no savings when you start trying to have your own financial department, your own administration. I believe this is not well thought out legislation.”
Supervisor Tommie Martin said she would like to see a revamp of the entire postsecondary education system in Arizona. “I believe these folks have put an awful lot of thought and effort into asking for our support in their path for seeking independence. I don’t know that there is ever a good time or there’s ever a right time. I look at it as, ‘If not now, when? And if not them, who?’ I’m ready to start. Let’s not put this off any longer.”
Mike Pastor said he has been involved with community colleges for at least the last 25 years and, “over the years there have been many discussions of becoming an independent community college. It’s not easy.”
He pointed out the board was not being asked to endorse any legislation. “The support that is asked for is for a ‘reasonable pathway’ and I will support this resolution.”
Dawson repeated she would not block the resolution but “I will stand in the way of a bond election or higher taxes (for the college),” she added.