A bill that would allow Gila Community College to seek independence this week passed the state Senate.
Sen. Sylvia Allen won easy passage for the measure after she amended the bill to give the GCC board a one-time window to seek voter approval of an increase in the property tax rate sometime during the 5-10 years it will take for the independent college to win its own accreditation.
The measure must still move through the House of Representatives and get Gov. Jan Brewer’s signature.
“I wasn’t going to go there,” said Sen. Allen of the amendment, “but there was quite a bit of pressure” from an organization representing other community colleges.
“We have no problem with the amendment,” said GCC Board Member Thomas Loeffler, “in fact, we think it will benefit us.”
In fact, Loeffler had originally suggested including the one-time ability to boost the property tax from the start, reasoning that the college will need an increase once it gets independent accreditation.
Currently, GCC has the lowest property tax rate in the state. As a provisional college, GCC also gets only a fraction of the state support received by other rural community colleges. GCC gets its accreditation through a contract with Eastern Arizona College, which gives EAC control over its budget, tuition and programs.
Several other bills that would likely have a major impact on GCC also advanced.
Another bill sponsored by Sen. Allen would make GCC eligible for federal workforce development money just like all the other community colleges in the state. That could yield $100,000 to $300,000 in new money for job training programs, like GCC’s popular nursing program or its training programs for business entrepreneurs, police officers and firefighters.
In addition, a bill that would allow EAC to offer three bachelor’s degrees escaped from the Senate Education Committee. EAC has sought permission to start offering four-year degrees for years, but the push has always floundered before in the face of opposition from the universities.
However, currently the legislature is casting about for ways to offer more low-cost college degrees, after three years of big cuts in support for the universities has forced a doubling of tuition.
Loeffler said that GCC could move quickly to seek its independence once the measure passes the house, where District Five representatives Chester Crandall and Brenda Barton have already signed on as sponsors. Crandall and Barton are both freshmen Republicans whose district includes all of Rim Country.
Loeffler said the legislation would require a series of public meetings getting public feedback on the move toward independence. Advocates for independence say it would give the GCC board more control over its budget, tuition and class offerings and better access to state support and grants.
The GCC board could then vote to become independent, which would trigger the long process of getting an independent academic accreditation. Independence would nullify the current contract with EAC, but the college would still need to contract with an existing community college to provide accreditation for the next 5-10 years. That could include a renegotiated contract with EAC.
“Any vote on a tax rate increase is a long way off,” said Loeffler. “But we’d have to develop a new contract with EAC — which is probably what the board members from the Globe area will want to see happen. But we would control our own budget and (EAC) would bill us” for administrative and academic services.
Sen. Allen said the addition of the amendment concerning an eventual vote on a property tax rate increase placated both the College Presidents Association and the Arizona Taxpayer’s Association, a conservative group that has substantial clout with the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature.
“Everyone said that it’s only fair for voters to have a one-time chance to have the tax rate adjusted once you go down the independence path — if the voters say ‘no,’ so be it.
“Right now, the way the law is, you can’t even ask. The College Presidents Association said we’ll support you as long as you do this amendment. They were afraid that somehow, someway this would take money away from them — and they said they wanted to be sure that Gila Community College is able to be successful.”
However, both Sen. Allen and Loeffler stressed that any such vote lies years down the road — when the economy has recovered and GCC can show strong demand. Enrollment at GCC has risen sharply right through the recession and it remains one of the fastest-growing community colleges in the state in percentage terms.