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Nearly half a billion dollars.

That’s how much state money officials at Arizona’s Maricopa Community College District estimate they could have received since 2008 and used to increase services for first-generation students or to improve developmental education.

The $441 million estimate is based on the $69 million Arizona's largest community college district received from the state in 2008. Only that figure gradually decreased with each subsequent year until it reached zero.

“We kind of saw it coming,” said Gaye Murphy, vice chancellor for Maricopa’s business services. “We started losing funding around 2008, but by the time we actually lost [all] funding it was a shock. Just to see it go all the way to zero was a shock, but we really had started making cuts before we actually lost all the funding.”

Arizona’s Legislature and governor made the unprecedented move in 2015 to completely cut state support for Maricopa and Pima Community College District, another large urban district that's located in Tucson. Before that decision, Maricopa's state funding had decreased to about $7.4 million. Pima received $6.5 million.

During the last two years, both districts have made cuts to cope with the lack of state support. District officials say their employees have felt the difference through the lack of pay raises or in deferred maintenance for campuses, buildings and equipment. Meanwhile, local property taxes and students' tuition have increased, as both institutions deal with declining enrollments.

“When funding was actually eliminated, it was only approximately $7 million, which was only about 4 percent of our total revenue,” said Libby Howell, Pima’s executive director of media, community and government relations, in an email. “Don’t misunderstand me. We certainly could have found good uses for that $7 million, but the college had already implemented budget cuts, a modified hiring freeze, no pay raises for several years and employees paying a greater percent of medical insurance costs.”

Like Maricopa, Pima had begun cutting back years before they hit zero, but the district still felt the impact.

“Faculty and staff positions remain vacant, and we find it difficult to compete with neighboring states that have a Legislature that supports public education,” Ana Jimenez, a math instructor at the college and president of the Pima Community College Education Association, said in an email. “We uphold our commitment to smaller class sizes and quality education, but a lack of state financial support requires us to find grant funding for state-of-the-art materials. The lack of support from our legislators undermines our morale and forces the college to rely exclusively on taxes and tuition.”

Property taxes, however, are controlled by the Arizona Constitution. In Maricopa County, property taxes have increased about four times in the past 10 years. And the district has received about 9 percent more state revenue from new construction. But Murphy said the new money has not covered the difference in the budget.

In Pima, property taxes increased by 1 percent in 2015, and resident tuition last year rose by 4 percent, to $78.50 a credit hour, Howell said.

But there are other challenges that are affecting the district -- like declining enrollment, which at times is of equal or greater concern to Pima officials because the state funding had already dwindled away.

Enrollment has fallen to circa 1992 levels and currently stands at 15,382 full-time students, yet staffing of faculty and administrators hasn’t changed, Howell said, adding that population growth is slowing, particularly in the 18-to-25 age group that is Pima's primary demographic.

“The college is at the point where it is having to consider really difficult options, such as closing campuses or reducing personnel,” she said.

Maricopa, with about 230,000 students, remains the state’s largest two-year institution. But the district's enrollment was approximately 265,000 students in 2012.

Both Maricopa and Pima have attempted to limit the impact of the state cuts on students.

“While we aren’t able to do the type of job we want to do, we really try very hard to keep the doors open and to make the changes outside of the classroom when we had to scale down,” Murphy said.

Less Red Tape?

A Maricopa economic impact study found that for every $1 of public money spent on the community colleges, taxpayers received a $4 return in tax revenues and reduced government costs, according to the Maricopa Community Colleges Faculty Association.

“The revenue reductions have not undermined faculty’s ability to support their students,” officers from the association said in a written statement. “We believe that we should have the support of the state of Arizona … Our positive impact in both Maricopa County and around the state is significant and we would welcome support from all of our community partners.”

When Arizona disinvested from the two-year institutions, some national observers speculated that the districts would be freed from some of the state requirements and other aspects of regulatory compliance that are usually tied to funding.

At Maricopa, Murphy said, the college was able to cut away some of the “red tape and reports” that they’d been doing for the state for years. And when they did, no one at the state level questioned the move.

“I don’t know how helpful that was to them,” she said, adding that if the state were to ask them to go back to providing additional reporting or accountability measures in return for state funds, the district would certainly do it.

One area the districts got the state to change was expenditure limits. But beyond this, many federal, county, accreditation and programmatic compliance measures still have to be met, Jimenez said.

“We have found ways to work with conservative legislators to ensure that the college is unharmed by other measures being considered,” Howell said. “In the 2016 legislative session, two Republican lawmakers were willing to put forward a bill at the colleges’ request that refined how [full-time student equivalency] is calculated and ultimately gives community colleges great access to their expenditure-limitation funds.”

Besides funding, Murphy said a major concern that remains for the colleges is continuing to be a part of statewide education and work force discussions and decisions. For instance, the state is addressing a critical shortage of K-12 teachers and Internet technology and cybersecurity professionals, all areas where the community colleges could be helpful to the state, she said. The college, for example, has "asserted" itself into the state's goal to ensure 60 percent of Arizona adults have a professional certificate or degree by 2030.

“Right now our governor and Legislature are meeting and a lot of the discussion has to do with funding, but because Maricopa Colleges don’t receive state funding, my concern is that we don’t get left out of discussions about what to do to improve Arizona’s work force development,” Murphy said. “Even if the time is not right to restore any of our funding, we still want to be a part of the solution to address some critical issues in Arizona.”

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