A bill establishing Gillette College as its own community college district is queued for discussion in a Wyoming Senate committee next week amid high hopes of it advancing to the next step, officials said Wednesday.
The bill in question, Senate File 83 (SF0083), is expected to be introduced Feb. 23 at 8 a.m. to the Senate Education Committee with an official decision on whether the bill will advance for discussion by the Committee of the Whole or not by noon the same day, according to the bill’s sponsor Senator Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette).
Preliminary support for the legislation in the Senate, including that of Senate Majority Floor Leader Ogden Driskill, indicates that the bill will be discussed on the Senate floor should it advance past committee, Sen. Wasserburger said.
That support is likely to increase and remain strong once the Senate is properly educated on the issue surrounding Gillette College, Sen. Wasserburger noted.
House Speaker Eric Barlow has pledged his support for the legislation upon the bill’s anticipated arrival in the House should it pass on from the Senate, though advised the best he can do to advance it through the House is to ensure a fair discussion.
“There’s not going to be a smooth sail,” Barlow said during a Gillette College Advisory Board luncheon Feb. 17. “There will be some questions.”
Representative John Bear (R-Gillette) has also promised his support for the bill in an email to County 17 in which he said he plans to vote in favor of the legislation should it advance into the House.
Getting the bill through the Wyoming Legislature is only the beginning, however, according to Gillette College Advisory Board Member Tracy Wasserburger.
“This is a very, very, important step in the process,” Tracy Wasserburger said, though she added that this step is by no means the largest obstacle facing the creation of another community college district.
Should the bill receive three readings in the House and be signed by Wyoming Governor Mark Gordon, the matter will still need to be voted in by the people of Campbell County, who will decide whether or not to willingly accept additional taxation, in the form of mills, accompanying the legislation.
There are currently seven community college districts in Wyoming, and most of them levy five mills to fund their community college districts, Sen. Wasserburger said, adding that Campbell County is one of few counties with a community college that does not because it is considered a service area for another district.
But there is no indication that Campbell County needs to follow the example laid out by other counties, according to Sen. Wasserburger.
Discussions with Wyoming Attorney General Bridget Hill have made it clear that a community college district only needs to levy enough mills to cover appropriation, Sen. Wasserburger said.
While the specific number of mills still needs to be established, talks with the Campbell County Board of Commissioners have also indicated that any potential mill levy for the county would be nowhere near the amounts levied by other districts, he said.
Bear, however, does not believe that questions regarding how many mills will be levied and how much Campbell County taxpayers can expect to pay if they vote in favor of the Gillette College Community College District are easily answered.
“Our mill value will likely be changing based on the current administration’s executive orders limiting fossil fuel production here in Campbell County,” Bear wrote. “With that being said, the people of this county will need to look at the opportunity cost of increasing taxes at this time.”
Bear wrote that, given the high probability of local industry running on a thread by the end of the year, every tax dollar paid in taxes could be a dollar not paid to workers.
“Jobs will likely be lost, so that we can gain local control of our community college,” Bear said.
The Gillette College Advisory Board would need to act efficiently to educate the people of Campbell County on the benefits of Gillette College existing within its own district, which would enable voters to vote with an informed opinion, according to Tracy Wasserburger.
Gillette College Advisory Board Member Joshua McGrath said one the most important things Gillette College stands to gain from SF0083 is flexibility and the ability to make its own decisions.
Such freedoms do not exist under the current dynamic with the Northern Wyoming Community College District, McGrath said, especially with all the decisions for Gillette College stemming from a board comprised of Sheridan residents and not Campbell County residents.
When the NWCCD decided to cut programs at Gillette College, such as sports programs, the local campus had no choice but to go along with the decision without the ability to so much as offer alternative methods of funding for those programs, McGrath said.
SF0089 would return control of the Gillette campus to local leaders, giving it the ability to dictate what programs are cut, if needed, and what new programs can be implemented to serve current and future students, according to McGrath.
Janell Oberlander, vice president of Gillette College, said that the campus is prepared to step into its new role as the seat of its own community college district.
“There are some pieces and parts that we need to look at,” she noted, but also said that the leadership and partnerships currently in place can work together to continue offering higher education opportunities for citizens both inside and outside Campbell County.
But first the bill still needs to make it out of the Wyoming Legislature and to come back into the hands of Campbell County residents where it belongs, according to Tracy Wasserburger.
“Bring it back home and let us decide about the future of Gillette College,” she said.