Wyoming Rep. Bill Fortner (R-Gillette) objected Thursday to a bill that would allow Gillette College to become its own college district, citing concerns of the move potentially having a negative impact on Campbell County residents and industry.
“I am not in support of the legislation,” Fortner said Feb. 18, one day after several other local legislator and college officials spoke favorably of the bill during a Gillette College Advisory Board luncheon Feb. 17.
The bill in question, Senate File 83 (SF0083), would allow Gillette College to separate from the Northern Wyoming Community College District (NWCCD) and stand alone as the seat of its own college district overseen by a local board of trustees.
The move would make Gillette College subject to local oversight, as opposed to the current arrangement where decisions regarding the local college are decided in Sheridan County by the NWCCD Board of Trustees, none of whom are Gillette or Campbell County residents, according to Gillette College Advisory Board Member Kevin McGrath.
Doing so would allow a locally selected board of trustees to decide what educational opportunities to offer current and future students, including the reinstatement of Gillette College’s sports programs, McGrath said Feb. 17.
The most important thing that the college stands to gain from SF0083 is the flexibility to make its own decisions, according to McGrath.
Fortner was notably absent from the board luncheon Feb. 17, saying that his absence was intentional to allow those in favor of the bill to have a good discussion, but that does not mean he supports SF0083.
The real aim of SF0083 is not to give Gillette College oversight of its educational programs, Fortner claimed, but to allow it to reinstate sports programs cut in 2020 during a series of budget cutbacks decreed by the current board of trustees during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People in Gillette are more worried about sports than they are about education,” Fortner said.
During the advisory board luncheon, Gillette College Advisory Board Member Tracy Wasserburger insisted that the bill be pushed through the legislature so the final decision could be placed in the hands of Campbell County residents, who will be asked to voluntarily subject themselves to additional taxation in the form of mills to fund the new district.
The exact number of mills that need to be levied, should the bill pass the legislature and is approved by local voters, is unknown at this point, but it should be no where near what other college districts require, Wyoming Sen. Jeff Wasserburger (R-Gillette) said.
But that decision should not go before the people of Campbell County, Fortner said in response to a question regarding whether residents should be given the option of choosing a new college district by popular vote.
Fortner is opposed to the Gillette College Advisory Board having anything to do with SF0083, whom he believes will use any favorable response, even it’s not the majority, as justification to form the new college district regardless of the outcome of the election.
The legislator also spoke against assertions by NWCCD President Dr. Walt Tribley that community colleges, like Gillette College, can help local industry, especially workers displaced from a declining coal industry that can take advantage of the college to receive an education and training to seek employment elsewhere.
Those workers will still need to have jobs to cover living expenses and provide for their families while they attend classes, according to Fortner, jobs that may not be available with the potential for additional taxation driving new business away from Gillette.
There also isn’t a guarantee that people will stay and work in Gillette when they finish school, Fortner noted.
When the work is gone, people will leave here to follow the work, that’s just the way it is, Fortner said.
The legislator believes he is doing the right thing by opposing the formation of a local community college district, believing that the additional taxation to fund the local college district will place further stress on an already stressed coal industry and isn’t a viable option to help Gillette overcome the decline in fossil fuels.
“Sometimes doing the right thing isn’t always the most popular thing,” Fortner said, adding that Gillette College has operated fine under the NWCCD to this point and will likely continue to operate fine should the bill fail in the legislature or is voted down by Campbell County residents.
“(Our own college district) is something we can live without, and have lived without,” Fortner said.