After a five-month wait, the Gila Community College board learned last week that the district is solvent after all.
The board received with relief year-end figures dating back to June, showing that the district really did have the $500,000 in carryover money as they’d hoped.
The delay in getting the final budget numbers from the fiscal year that ended in June rested mostly on Eastern Arizona College’s wait for the last few bills to calculate its 25 percent overhead fee.
“We have a carryover. That’s good news,” said board president Larry Stephenson. “Which is quite a change. Looking critically at the turnaround, I would request we remove the final furlough day.”
Faced with stalled enrollment and a sharp drop in state support last year, the college approved two, unpaid furlough days per month for every employee — amounting to a 10 percent pay cut.
The board restored one of those days earlier this year, but put off action on the second furlough day until it received the final budget numbers.
Since GCC remains a “provisional” community college district under state law, it not only gets very little state aid, but must contract with a full-fledged district for its credential.
As a result, most of the GCC employees actually work for EAC, which is about $1 million annually for managing the GCC campuses in Payson, Globe and on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.
Last year, the district spent about $5.4 million plus the $1 million paid to EAC. Most of the district’s money is from local property taxes and tuition. State aid provided about 8 percent of the district’s funds. If the state treated GCC the same as the other rural community college districts in the state, it would double GCC’s budget.
The budget figures also revealed sharp differences in spending from one GCC campus to the next. The monthly budget tracking recently requested by Stephenson now shows that GCC spends about twice as much on its Globe campus as on its Payson campus, although the two campuses have roughly the same enrollment.
Northern Gila County provides about 60 to 70 percent of the district’s assessed value and therefore the property tax payments that provide the bulk of the district’s operating funds.
The owner of a $200,000 house in Payson pays about $150 annually to the college district.
The board has consistently increased the property tax rate to close to the legal limit, struggling to make ends meet as the state has curtailed payments to community college districts statewide.
GCC officials in the past have said the cost difference between the Payson and Globe campus stems mostly from the expensive vocational programs in Globe that cater to the mining industry, like welding.
In Payson, a large share of the enrollment consists of retirees who already have college degrees taking enrichment classes like art, writing, yoga and others. However, the full-time student enrollment in Payson has grown in recent years.
Moreover, the Payson campus has thriving vocational and credentialing programs for nurses and firefighters.
Still, the board reacted with relief to the finally released final figures.
“Thank you for bringing us good news for a change,” said Stephenson. In past budget years, the GCC board has frequently had no idea as to the budget status. Although EAC previously provided a mass of financial data, board members said they could not puzzle out the columns of figures and budget categories. The new budget report totals up overall spending in a few major categories, with separate totals for each GCC campus.
In previous years, the board has reeled from figures that changed abruptly and with little explanation. For instance, two years ago as the board prepared to adopt a budget, preliminary figures from EAC suggested a likely $2 million deficit. That deficit seemingly melted away in subsequent reports, without any clear explanation.
This time, GCC Senior Dean Stephen Cullen said, “We projected a $500,000 carry-over, so we were right on target. I’m really proud of our staff and administrators for being frugal.”
However, he said the district may suffer additional cuts this year from the state and might also face another year of enrollment declines. As a result, the board should approach the issue of eliminating the remaining furlough day carefully. In addition, the board will have to determine whether to raise tuition again this year, although the district has among the highest base tuition rates in the state.
“When you’re looking at the tuition issue, that’s going to go hand in hand.”
Later in the meeting, Cullen noted that the district might need to add a full-time math teacher to the tiny faculty at the Payson campus and a full-time English teacher to the Globe campus. Currently, the district relies heavily on classes taught by adjunct or part-time faculty; pay for those employees is about half as much as it would be for teaching the same courses at a community college district in the Valley.
Cullen noted that the district might have to reduce support staff in Globe to free up enough money to hire the two additional faculty members, who each teach core subjects.
Stephenson noted that state spending limits imposed on districts would allow GCC to spend up to $7 million annually. However, legal limits on how fast the district can increase the property tax levee make it impossible for the board to raise enough money to ever hit that legal spending limit.
“We can’t get there because there’s a limit on how much we can raise taxes and how much we can raise tuition. So we basically can’t get there from here even if we wanted to.”
“It really gets back to lobbying (the Legislature),” said Cullen, referring to GCC’s status as a second-class citizen when it comes to state funding of community colleges.