It’s been a rocky road in the relationship between the Gila County Provisional Community College District (GCC) and Eastern Arizona College (EAC) in the months since the district announced its intention to split from EAC to seek independence.
Just when it looked like the situation had completely deteriorated and GCC would be left hanging without an accredited partner—leaving students scrambling to find viable alternatives and instructors wondering if they would still have jobs—negotiations resumed with a nudge from Senate President Warren Petersen, (R-Gilbert).
As a result, students who thought they would have to change their educational plans, relocate or make the long drive to Thatcher in Graham County—a 150-mile round-trip—will have a short reprieve as GCC works to finalize a deal with another community college in the state.
An uneasy standoff between the schools came to a head at the end of July when GCC held a pair of bruising public forums to explain its decision, but an angry public that was largely supportive of EAC was still skeptical in the end.
Much of the anger was due to a lack of communication, as most were unaware of what was happening behind the scenes and only had information provided by EAC or what they had gleaned from threads on social media.
Within the next 48 hours, Petersen intervened with the threat of legislative action to re-open negotiations leading to an extension of the contract through 2025.
The contract was penned in 2019 and expired in June 2022. According to GCC Interim President Janice Lawhorn, it automatically extended for one year, “unless either party provides notice of termination,”allowing either party a way out with a 90-day notice.
Quest for independence
Under the terms of the agreement, EAC provides accredited courses, programs and services such as IT and human resources, including payroll.
GCC’s budget is nearly $6 million, according to Jan Brocker, president of the GCC governing board. Gila County reimburses EAC to cover expenses, which charges an additional 25% for administrative fees, amounting to about $1.2 million annually from the Gila County coffers above operational costs.
“Most of our income comes from Gila County, but we do have state funding primarily for workforce development,” Brocker says. “I don’t think people understand that and think EAC gives us our operating budget. No, we pay them.”
The district owns all of its property, equipment and facilities, including the Gila Pueblo Campus in Globe and the Payson Campus, the Globe/Miami Regional Training Center and the Hayden Wellness Center. GCC has operated for 20 years and, according to Brocker and Lawhorn, is completely debt free.
Independence would allow local control for Gila County and save more than $1 million annually. It would also consolidate all of the school’s functions and administration within the boundaries of the county.
Additionally, the legislation that initially created provisional districts in the state mandated those districts seek independence at some point in the future.
In the fall of 2022, GCC and EAC representatives met to discuss finances and personnel issues to replace two retired deans on the Payson and Gila campuses. Two previous searches had failed and GCC wanted to reopen the search.
That December, the GCC board also approved a new marketing position, but EAC did not follow up to fill the position, according to Lawhorn. EAC subsequently cut off all communications between the GCC board and students or employees of the district.
The board interpreted these actions as a way for EAC to assert control and impede the district’s ability to manage personnel as well as its chances for a successful bid for independence. It also believed EAC wanted to keep Gila County students taking online classes on the books to up enrollment counts in order to increase state revenues.
“In April of this year, I met with the two vice presidents at Eastern Arizona College,” Lawhorn said. “At that time, they told me that there would not be any additional communication between me and the senior dean or financial coordinator or the campus coordinators or anyone on either of the campuses, or they as the employee would face disciplinary action.”
The threat led to frustration on the part of both the GCC board and the staff and students of the college due an informational vacuum that followed as the issue was publicly aired on social media with no opportunity for the district to respond to increasingly heated criticism and unsupported theories.
On May 9, Brocker and Lawhorn released a statement indicating that GCC would terminate its agreement with EAC, effective June 30, 2024, in order to “work through its impending transition” and give students the opportunity to finish programs in a timely manner.
The board reasoned that it had not recommended any changes to the agreement with EAC, and that the extra time it proposed would facilitate a more orderly transition to any future agreement with another institution.
But EAC was not on board with that schedule, and on June 12 informed the GCC governing board that it would “terminate the already terminated contract” on Sept. 10, 2023, leaving students, faculty and administrators in a state of chaos as the beginning of the school year rapidly approached.
The kibosh on communications did not sit well with the community that was quick to blame GCC for the mess.
“The community felt like they were put in the middle between us and the board. To threaten disciplinary action for communicating was a little harsh,” Lawhorn says. “We certainly didn’t want to jeopardize any of the students or employees. We said that very clearly. That was the last straw for us, because it was totally inappropriate.”
Regardless, two Town Halls—a second was held in Payson on July 27—brought waves of angry citizens questioning the GCC board’s decisions.
Many of the people on hand were either employees of the district, alumni or students expressing dismay at the idea they would either lose their jobs or educational opportunities if the district collapsed.
Globe native and local business owner Erica Flores, who earned her teaching credential through the GCC/EAC partnership, called the GCC board to task for what she considered a series of bad decisions.
“It has been such a service to our rural communities to get certified teachers in the classrooms and this decision directly impacts that,” Flores said. “There should have been a plan in place and part of that plan should have been knowing at least who some of these new partners would be.”
Lawhorn responded that schools are not run the same way as private business, due to the regulatory framework involved, the way in which funding is allocated, and relationships with multiple public entities.
Throughout the forum, Lawhorn and Brocker indicated there was a potential partner in the wings, but the GCC board was unable to pursue that option while the district was still in an agreement with EAC.
“How many of you have gone through a divorce?,” Lawhorn posited. “How many of you could start a new relationship while you were still married? Not a good idea. Right?”
Formation of the provisional district
There are 10 community college districts in the State of Arizona with 61 locations serving nearly 300,000 students, 1,400 of whom are in Gila County.
Due to a small population and limited tax base—94% of Gila County is on vast tracts of federal or Tribal land—the County did not qualify to have its own independent community college, so access was limited for many residents.
In 1999, two provisional districts were created as a result of legislation enacted allowing counties to levy taxes to create schools offering accredited courses through partnerships with accredited independent community college districts.
In 2002, Gila County voters passed Proposition 400, giving a green light to the tax levy and in March 2003 the Gila County Provisional Community College District filed articles of incorporation.
After a brief and acrimonious relationship with Pima Community College, GCC entered into an agreement with EAC in 2005. It is not clear why the previous relationship ended, although Lawhorn and Brocker believe it had something to do with a disagreement over property ownership.
In 2009, the State ended the creation of new provisional districts, but GCC was grandfathered in and the threshold for the number of students required for enrollment, should the school gain independence, was reduced from 900 to 450, thanks to the efforts of Representative David Cook in 2011.
The other provisional district is in Santa Cruz County, located in Nogales, which has a contract with Pima Community College. The school’s website states that its governing board is “investigating the possibility of developing a pathway to future accreditation.”
The problem for both districts is that when the State Legislature gave the green light to create the districts, it provided no pathway, or even any breadcrumbs, to attain that goal.
Nevertheless, the statute directs them to “maintain a regional accreditation and oversight relationship with another community college district until the district achieves initial candidacy status from a regional accrediting agency,” but must “actively seek accreditation from a regional accrediting agency recognized by the United States Department of Education or by the Council on Postsecondary Accreditation.”
In GCC’s case, that agency is the The Higher Learning Commission (HLC), an independent corporation based in Chicago, Illinois, founded in 1895 as one of six regional organizations in the U.S. that accredits degree-granting postsecondary educational institutions.
“We are definitely establishing our own organizational structure we had to get in place,” says Lawhorn. “And now I feel like we can move forward more efficiently.”
Lawhorn is uniquely qualified to lead the transition, as she was employed by EAC as an instructor and administrator for more than two decades. She is now working with GCC’s five-member volunteer governing board, composed of Gila County residents from regions created through the legislation.
Her salary is paid through a five-year intergovernmental agreement (IGA) with Gila County that provides GCC with $250,000 annually to hire consultants in the bid for independence, which was addressed in executive session at the board of supervisor’s Aug. 1 meeting.
At the end of the session, the supervisors returned to open session to unanimously authorize county attorneys to work with GCC’s attorney on any potential new contract between GCC, the county and any future community college partner.
“If it wasn’t for this agreement, we would not have been able to contract with Interim President Janice Lawhorn, or any of our other specialists/consultants,” Brocker stated in an email to GMT. Due to the nature of the meeting, Brocker was unable to provide more details, but stated that “the Supervisors are very supportive of our moving forward toward independent status.”
Decisions that affect important programs and the local workforce
Despite the number of community college districts in the state, there are only a select few with the ability to accredit the school’s nursing program, one of the best in the state that brought many concerned citizens to the Town Halls.
The program must receive the blessings of the Accreditation Commission for Education in Nursing (ACEN), a national certification the current program has.
“We know that when we partner with someone else, we need to ensure that they have at least that ACEN accreditation,” Lawhorn says. “Our first priority is to ensure that, because we think everything else can fall in place. … An accredited nursing program is a top priority for us.”
As a result of a meeting with Petersen earlier in the day on July 25, on Friday, July 28 GCC announced that thanks to that intervention, EAC had agreed in principle to extend the contract through June 30, 2025.
The extended date allows one final group of students to enroll in two-year programs that can be completed at the Gila Pueblo and Payson campuses, including high school students in dual-enrollment classes and job training programs.
After the upcoming fall semester, there will be no two-year program enrollments and students in one-year programs can enroll through the fall of 2024. Single-semester programs will be available through the spring 2025 semester.
The announcement elicited a sigh of relief to Mike O’Neal, superintendent of the Cobre Valley Institute of Technology (CVIT), which has operating agreements through both GCC and EAC.
CVIT is one of 14 Career and Technical Education Districts (CTED) in the state, working with school districts and private business partners throughout the region.
O’Neal, who has been in the position for nearly three years and has worked hard to stabilize the district’s seven certification programs that range from Cosmetology to Welding, has been on a roller coaster in the wake of COVID and now has to maneuver through this potential setback.
He says that if EAC had ended the contract this fall it would have put CVIT’s efforts back at least three years.
“The impact would have been that our largest program, medical systems, would not be available to new students,” O’Neal says. “Traditionally, we get about 30 students a year in the first year of the two-year program. That would have impacted us significantly for funding student opportunities and it would impact our local workforce needs because about 80% of our students are placed right after they complete the program, when they’re done with high school, with some of them placed while they’re still in high school.”
He says that while CVIT is still “behind the 8-ball,” now that the timeline has been extended, he and his staff members can work to get back on track.
“Unfortunately, we had to turn some students away so hopefully we can recoup those and recover,” O’Neal says. “I am really, really thrilled EAC was able to come to these terms and make this possible for our students, because it’s what’s best for our students, it’s what’s best for our community, it’s what’s best for our local workforce needs.”
An uneasy peace
On July 28, GCC released a statement announcing the extension of the contract, praising Petersen and EAC for the work that went into the agreement that is pending approval from both school’s boards.
“We’re elated that EAC has agreed to do what’s right for the students of Gila County,” Brocker stated. “We look forward to implementing the orderly transition we proposed when we gave EAC 14 months’ notice that GCC would seek a new accreditation solution.”
The announcement caught EAC off guard, as Kris McBride, EAC’s director of marketing and public relations, expected there would be a joint press release at some later point.
“We always had the best interest of Gila County students at heart,” McBride said in a subsequent interview. “When we received the initial notice [from GCC] and asked who the new provider would be, we were concerned because there was no provider in place.”
As to the halt of communications with the GCC board, McBride stated that EAC was not stopping communication, but “enforcing best practices for effective board governance,” since EAC expected all communication to go through its president or vice president.
“While the Gila Board can certainly be cordial with our employees, it is not their role to provide direction to individual employees,” McBride wrote in an email.
According to McBride’s office, EAC reversed its position on the extension of the contract through June 2025 after the GCC board paid nearly $2 million in overdue payments.
“EAC’s contract extension temporarily bridges the gap for students caught in the middle,” McBride stated in EAC’s press release on Aug. 2.
In response, the GCC board stated that the invoice it received was $500,000 higher than expected, but no documentation or itemized invoice explained the charges.
“When it became clear that this payment would be a sticking point in terminating the contract, we made the payment immediately,” Lawhorn stated. “To date, we have not received all the documentation from EAC about the entirety of this billing.”
Now the clock is ticking for the governing board, but everything appears to be falling into place. The district is financially stable with the support of the Gila County Board of Supervisor and the plans that were briefly derailed can now get back on track.
With a bit of luck, the college can take its next step to independence—working with a new partner—and can announce its new beginning in 2024.
Journalist, writer and editor who has worked for community newspapers for more than 15 years. After four years at Davis-Monthan AFB and a few years living in Tucson, moved to California to find his fortune. He is happy to be back in Arizona, in the mountains he loves.