Campbell County, Wyo., residents voted Tuesday to allow Gillette College to separate from the Northern Wyoming Community College District after a contentious special election, according to unofficial election results posted by the county clerk’s office.
The decision comes after weeks of voting by -- and sometimes bitter infighting among -- county residents. Advocates of the ballot proposal argued that the community would benefit from having a college under local leadership, while opponents were incensed that the new district will come with a new property tax. Heated arguments about the election erupted on social media, with voters accusing one another of mudslinging and peddling misinformation.
The Northern Wyoming Community College District, which serves Sheridan, Johnson and Campbell Counties, is run by a board of trustees made up of seven officials elected by Sheridan County citizens. A representative of the Gillette College advisory board participates in board meetings but lacks an official vote.
Gillette College, located in the city of Gillette, which is also the county seat, will now be able to form its own community college district, along with a new board of trustees, which voters also elected Tuesday. (There were 23 candidates on the ballot for the seven-seat board.) Having such autonomy will allow the college to work more closely with local employers to design academic programs that meet specific labor markets needs and provide education and training that lead directly to jobs.
Janell Oberlander, vice president of Gillette College, said an independent district will allow the college to be more “nimble” in responding to those local workforce needs.
“The main advantage is that you have local control,” she said. “We have to have the ability to offer new training opportunities. When new companies are looking to come to our communities, we need to be able to say, ‘Here’s what we can do and here’s how quickly we can wrap this up. Here’s how quickly we can bring in new technology.’”
For example, Josh McGrath, a member of the Gillette College advisory board and one of the winning candidates for the new district's Board of Trustees, said Campbell County, which is known for its coal, oil and gas industries, would benefit from a college program that trains students in reclamation technology to restore land disrupted by coal mining. He also wants to expand the college’s nursing program to meet student demand. McGrath said Gillette leaders brought both ideas to the Northern Wyoming Community College District, and they were rejected.
The special election occurred after sweeping budget cuts of approximately $4 million by the Northern Wyoming Community College District. Among other belt-tightening measures, all athletic programs, except for the men’s and women’s rodeo teams, at Sheridan College and Gillette College were cut last July to address an estimated $4 million loss in revenue partly related to the pandemic and reduced state funding.
“Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a working relationship,” McGrath said of Gillette College’s interactions with the Northern Wyoming Community College District. “But the needs of Sheridan and Sheridan’s citizens and Sheridan College are different than the needs of Gillette and Gillette College and Campbell County citizens. They’re just two distinctly different communities. And geographically, they’re 100 miles down the road.”
Independence for the college will come at some cost. A state statute mandates that the county levy up to four mills -- a mill is the number of dollars someone pays for every thousand dollars of taxable property -- for the college’s maintenance and operating costs. The typical home in Campbell County is valued at $275,636 on Zillow. If county residents were taxed the full four mills, a homeowner with property at that value would pay about $105 per year, according to the property tax calculator on the county government’s website.
That might not seem like a lot of money, but “I’ve personally talked to some older people that are on fixed incomes, some living on as little as $600 a month,” said Jacob Dalby, who is 22 years old and one of the leaders of the Anti-Tax Coalition, the political action committee that opposed the ballot proposal. Even small amounts are “a lot to somebody like that.”
Dalby ran unsuccessfully as a candidate for the Gillette College District Board of Trustees because he wanted the board to have a “conservative voice” if the proposal did pass. The rancher also expressed concerns that the tax burden will hurt local industries, which he believes are already “strained as much as can be” under the environmental policies of the Biden administration. The administration announced new goals in April to cut greenhouse gas pollution from 2005 levels in half by 2030. Most greenhouse gas emissions come from burning fossil fuels, such as coal, gas and petroleum, industries that are prevalent in Campbell County.
“This town is going to end up a ghost town, and the more taxes we add on top of it is only going to hurt it and make it come faster,” Dalby said.
McGrath, the newly elected Board of Trustees member, noted that in a deep-red state like Wyoming -- where almost 70 percent of registered voters are Republican -- “tax” is a “dirty word.”
“Wyoming by nature is a very conservative state. That is who we are,” he said. “We try to say this is an investment in our community, which it truly is.”
The opposition also reflects real anxieties about the decline of the mineral extraction industry in Wyoming, said Walt Tribley, president of the Northern Wyoming Community College District.
“When we look at people who are expressing emotion, we try to find, what is real?” he said. “Where is it coming from? These folks are very often really struggling and feeling like the nation has kind of turned their shoulder, which doesn’t have anything to do with Gillette College.” Nonetheless, “these feelings are real and families are impacted.”
Discussions about the special election have been especially contentious. The Casper-Star Tribune reported that Jeff Raney, a Gillette resident who ran twice for state senate, filed two complaints with the Wyoming secretary of state’s office alleging that a local retailer who sells shoe comfort products was connected to a political action committee in favor of the proposal and offered discounts to residents who voted yes.
Dalby, the rancher, said voters told him their neighbors “harassed” them for having signs opposing the proposal in their yards. The Facebook page “Vote No to Save Our Community” is riddled with accusations that “vote no” signs were taken down by proponents of the ballot proposal.
Voters supporting the new college district insist the campaign waged by the pro side has been a clean process.
“Nobody is stealing signs from the support side,” McGrath said. “Frankly, it’s just not happening.”
This isn’t the first time Campbell County residents sought independence for Gillette College, Tribley said. Proposals were floated in 1985 and 1992, but the first effort was shot down by the Wyoming Community College Commission, and the second made it to the electorate but ultimately failed.
The Northern Wyoming district expects to lose about $3 million, mostly in enrollment-based state funding, with the departure of Gillette College, Tribley said. The district, like higher education institutions across the state, was already struggling with state budget cuts. Governor Mark Gordon cut the budgets of the University of Wyoming and the state’s community colleges by 10 percent last August. He called the overall budget reduction “devastating, but necessary.”
The district has time to come up with other revenue streams, however. Gillette College will remain under the Northern Wyoming district’s accreditation until its own accreditation process is complete, which means until then, the district will continue to receive state funding based on an enrollment number that includes Gillette students.
Tribley, the president of the Northern Wyoming district, said he wanted the ballot proposal to succeed, even though his district will take a financial hit. He pointed out that Campbell County is in the third-largest county in the state.
“They want a college. There’s enough people there, there’s a strong voice,” he said. It seemed like a “worthwhile endeavor.”
Oberlander, the vice president of Gillette, noted that the college has grown since the county’s last bid for its independence in the 1990s, when the college was operating out of an old hospital converted into classrooms. The campus now encompasses a dozen buildings, she said.
“Leadership in our community just decided it was time,” she said.