By Wendy Corr, Cowboy State Daily
A bill that would create Wyoming’s first new community college district in more than 50 years is nearing its final review in the Legislature.
Senate File 83, which would create a separate district for Gillette’s community college, was scheduled to be read a third and final time in Wyoming’s House on Wednesday. The bill has already been approved by the Senate.
Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, who represents Gillette and Campbell County in the Legislature, said it is long past time that Gillette has its own community college.
“Gillette has grown a great deal since the school first started,” he observed. “We’ve really become the third largest community in the state, and we are the largest community in the state without a its own community college district. So we think that it’s time that we put our ‘big boy panties’ on and became an independent community college district that’s controlled by people in Gillette and Campbell County.”
For residents of both Gillette and Sheridan, this could be a win-win, according to Wasserburger.
“I don’t think that there’ll be any impact that is going to hurt Sheridan College in any way,” he predicted. “They have an independent foundation called the Whitney Foundation that helps fund the college — but they also levy five mills (in property taxes) that generates funding, and they receive state aid from the Wyoming Community College commission.”
He added that the Wyoming Legislature recently approved the construction for a new technical education building at Sheridan College, so he expects that the school will continue to be a valuable resource for Sheridan and Johnson Counties.
But the proposal for a new district isn’t without its detractors.
Officials with the Northern Wyoming Community College District, which controls the Sheridan and Gillette colleges, in February wrote legislators a letter expressing the district’s opposition to the new district.
Walter Tribley, the district’s president, said if the Gillette College wins its own district, Sheridan College will lose $3 million per year because of the resources that will be directed to the new college.
“This negative consequence has been ignored and/or dismissed by those who so adamantly support a division,” he wrote in his letter. “We must stop ignoring this inconvenient truth and begin moving toward a solution.”
As the bill neared its third and final House review, no such appropriation had been put in it.
Several other hurdles must be cleared even if the bill wins final legislative approval and it is signed into law by Gov. Mark Gordon.
If the Legislature approves the creation of the district, Gillette College will still need to ask voters in Campbell County to approve a tax to fund the school.
“It will be a special district election, and all the people in Campbell County – registered voters – will have the opportunity to weigh in on whether or not they’re going to accept the tax for what would be the Gillette Community College,” Wasserburger said.
Even if the voters approve the tax in August, it will be a few years before the school can become entirely independent from the Sheridan College umbrella. Until then, the two schools will continue to operate as they have for the last 51 years.
“In the Gillette College bill, the funding remains the same for Sheridan – and until Gillette college is fully accredited (which is going to take anywhere from two to six years), Gillette college will not be independent,” Wasserburger said. “So it’s very important that we have a great relationship with Sheridan College – we will continue to be best of working partners.
“It has nothing to do with having hard feelings towards Sheridan College – they’ve been more than good to us for many, many years. It’s just that it’s time for us to move on,” he continued.
Should the new district be created, Wasserburger noted it would be the first new community college for the state in more than 50 years.
“The last community college to become an independent community college was Laramie County Community College in 1968,” he said. “It doesn’t happen every day.”