Campbell County looks into forming own college district

GILLETTE — If Gillette is going to have its own community college district, it will ultimately be the voters who have the final say.

But before it reaches the ballot, it must cross two hurdles. The first is getting approval from the Wyoming Community College Commission. The second is getting approval from the state legislature.

State Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, met with Campbell County Commissioners last week to go over the process of forming a new community college district in light of the recent loss of athletics at Gillette College.

On June 25, the Northern Wyoming Community College District announced it was cutting athletics at Gillette and Sheridan. Over the next five days, Gillette residents put together a plan to fund sports at Gillette College for the 2020-2021 school year with private dollars while also working toward a longer-term solution.

At a July 2 meeting, the district board didn’t accept the proposal, partly because it only addressed Gillette College and didn’t include Sheridan College. Immediately after the meeting, Gillette College supporters began talking about the process to break away from Sheridan.

Barlow said the legislation to form a new district is complicated and ambiguous and needs to be cleaned up.

“We’re treading on ground that hasn’t been completed since 1968,” he said. “I want to make sure Campbell County, and any other county that wanted to have a community college district, has a clear road to accomplishing that.”

“They created a system that’s very hard to adapt and adjust to changes and circumstances over time,” said Norine Kasperik, a former state legislator and former Gillette College nursing instructor.

She added that it worked in Gillette despite that because “Gillette was such a unique community that worked hard to make it happen.”

“What we’re trying to do is get a governance structure and a revenue source. That’s what a community college district does,” Barlow said.

If Gillette wants to form its own district, the Northern Wyoming Community College District would have no say.

If there are assets in the service area of the new district that belonged to the old district, “the new district takes over those assets,” Barlow added. That’s a key point in Gillette because all of the college buildings were built with substantial contributions from the county, city, hospital and local donors well as state money.

The application for the formation of a community college district must be submitted in the form prescribed by the commission and have at least 500 signatures from qualified electors. The application form is not readily available, Barlow said.

Josh McGrath, president of the Gillette College Booster Club, is taking the lead on collecting signatures.

Whenever the community college commission receives a proper application for the formation of a community college district, it will conduct a survey to consider the following:

  • The need for a community college in the proposed district
  • The need for the community college in the state
  • The financial ability of the proposed district to support a college
  • The educational soundness of the proposed community college plan
  • Any other matters that might help the commission in considering the application

The county commissioners will reimburse the community college commission for the survey’s costs.

The community college commission will have 90 days to decide whether to approve the application.

Barlow said in the best case scenario, the commission would approve the application before the start of the 2021 legislative session. Then, he or another legislator would introduce a bill for the formation of a new district to get the approval of the state Legislature.

If the Legislature passes the bill, then the next step is putting the question before the voters in an election, which can be held in May at the earliest, and it also can be held in August or November.

There will be two things on the ballot. The first is a question asking if a community college district should be created in Campbell County and if a special mill tax should be levied. The second is a list of candidates for the new district’s board of trustees.

A district can assess fewer than 4 mills, but it won’t have access to state funding unless it assesses at least four mills. Barlow said that is something he hopes to address during the next legislative session.

“I don’t know that citizens would want to assess four mills,” Barlow said. “But we still should have access to a proportionate share of state funding if we chose to.”

A mill levy is the number of dollars in taxes that a property owner must pay for every $1,000 of assessed value. In Campbell County, the energy industry carries most of that weight.

“It’s definitely a concern, not only for coal but oil and gas and any other industries, because they shoulder the responsibility,” said Commission Chairman D.G. Reardon.

This year, Campbell County’s assessed valuation is about $4.24 billion, meaning one mill brings in about $4.24 million.

In 2019, Sheridan County’s assessed valuation was $449.5 million, meaning one mill brought in about $449,500. Sheridan College receives five mills, which comes out to about $2,247,500.

The commissioners were in favor of breaking off from the district.

“I think it’s time to find an exit strategy,” said Commissioner Del Shelstad.

“Sheridan is not going to bend over backwards to make things work for Gillette,” Reardon said.

“Never have, never will,” said Commissioner Bob Maul. “It’s quite a slap in the face after all the dollars we put into this college.”

They recognized that it would require a tax increase, which will be a tough sell in Campbell County.

“That’s where people have some difficulty,” Reardon said.