The Gila Community College board last week took the first crucial step toward both achieving independence and renegotiating the contract with Eastern Arizona College required by its provisional college status.
With Board Member Bob Ashford absent, the board voted unanimously to start what’s likely to be a five-year process to shed its provisional status and become an accredited community college system. The vote represents the first concrete step toward independence since the district in 2012 managed to convince the Legislature to open for the state’s two provisional colleges a legal door toward independence long bolted shut by a formula written into the law.
A second vote at last week’s GCC board meeting will likely re-open discussions about the contract with Eastern Arizona College, which current provides the accreditation for GCC’s classes. This accreditation is necessary for students to transfer credits to four-year universities and other programs that lead to a degree. GCC’s provisional college status means it needs to contract with an accredited college like EAC. Under the terms of the current contract, almost all of the GCC employees actually work for EAC, which tacks on a 25 percent charge on everything GCC spends.
“What we’re trying to do is hopefully get some of our own employees so we can move toward independence. We’re hopeful EAC will work with us. They have said in the past that we are their experiment — and they’re hoping we’ll become independent some day. A baby has to crawl before he can walk, so it’s time for us to start crawling,” said Tom Loeffler, one of two representatives on the GCC board from Northern Gila County.
The unanimous vote represented a newfound unity on the once deeply divided board since Northern Gila County’s Larry Stephenson was elected chairman, after Ashford relinquished the role.
Previously, the two Northern Gila County board members found themselves consistently outvoted. Ashford consistently argued that the contract with EAC represented a bargain for GCC and that GCC couldn’t afford to pursue independence.
Loeffler noted that achieving accreditation would likely prove expensive and time consuming. Just the fee to get the accrediting agency to inspect the facilities and review the curriculum will run to about $200,000, he said.
On the other hand, achieving independence will cut costs and likely increase revenues.
Currently, GCC and Santa Cruz Community College — the only two provisional districts in the state — get almost no state support. Every college in the state gets some state funding for each student, although the Legislature has cut that amount drastically in the past three years.
Most of the other rural community college districts also get extra state support from a separate “equalization” fund. In the case of the Safford-based EAC, that amounts to about $8 million, which compares to GCC’s entire budget of about $6 million.
Loeffler noted that if GCC simply employed all the non-academic employees directly instead of through the EAC contract, it would save about $350,000 annually.
However, he said the main benefit in moving toward independence lies in the ability of the district to tailor the curriculum to meet the needs of the community.
Currently, the GCC board must seek permission from EAC to add any course not already in the EAC course catalog, a process that generally takes about two years.
The board has talked about launching new programs and initiatives, including a close partnership with whichever university ends up partnering with the Rim Country Educational Alliance SLE on nearly 400 acres next door to the GCC campus.
In addition, the spin-off businesses likely to arrive as a result of the construction of a university here would develop vocational and job training programs. Loeffler noted that independence would make it much easier for GCC to develop specific vocational and academic programs.
On the other hand, Loeffler noted that the process remains expensive and uncertain, especially in light of a sharp enrollment decline at GCC in the past two years.
He noted that a task force set up to study the issue concluded that it could cost as much as $6 million over the course of 10 years for GCC to achieve full independence.
“Are we even going to be in existence in five years if we keep dropping students?” asked Loeffler.
On the other hand, if the region does resume its once-robust growth and a university builds a campus here, GCC could find its prospects once again transformed.