GILLETTE — The Campbell County Commission has instructed county employees to begin investigating what it would take to withdraw Gillette College from the Northern Wyoming Community College District.
“I want everyone to be perfectly clear, this is not going to be easy,” Commissioner Rusty Bell said to a packed commissioner chambers Monday afternoon. “We have to tax ourselves. There are some options on how that works, but that will have to happen.
“And this doesn’t come at the hands of a few donors here and there. It has to be a community-wide effort.”
The discussion comes in the wake of the NWCCD cutting all athletics at both Gillette and Sheridan colleges Thursday as part of an overall budget reduction of about $4 million. The coaches and players learned of the move Thursday morning, many saying it caught them off guard. Coaches are out of jobs and student-athletes are left without programs to play in after much of the critical spring recruiting season has passed.
Bell laid out two options for Campbell County to have more control over what happens at Gillette College: become incorporated into the Northern Wyoming Community College District or create its own special district.
To do either would likely require raising the county's mill levy, which is used to assess property taxes.
In fiscal year 2020-21, the county will assess 11.28 mills on an assessed valuation of $4.24 billion. One mill would equal about $4.2 million, but the mill levy is expected to decrease over the next few years, Bell said.
“What is the mill level that people can accept?” he asked. “I really don’t know what that is.”
Commissioners said they will do what they can to help the college, "but it all comes at a cost, it's not free," said Chairman D.G. Reardon.
It would require residents to vote to tax themselves for the college to "be at the level where it's at right now," he said.
Before any potential college vote gets anywhere near a ballot box, the county needs to create and submit and application to the Wyoming Community College Commission.
“It means we can start the process at some point,” Bell said before adding that it would not go to voters this year. “The timeline doesn’t allow for that, but that doesn’t mean we can’t start the process.
“It’s time for us to start thinking about our own district.”
The Commission’s decision publicly support Gillette College becoming its own entity comes days after the district announced it has axed all athletics at the two schools, except for rodeo.
Bell read a letter commissioners will send to college district President Walter Tribley, its board of trustees and Gillette College Vice President Janell Oberlander. It says the decision to cut sports is “devastating" to the local community.
“Making such a decision without consultation with anyone in the community is both disappointing and concerning,” the letter says.
“We knew this was gong to be deep, and painful for our community,” Oberlander told commissioners. “Nonetheless. we had to move forward. These are unprecedented financial times and it calls for unprecedented reactions and unprecedented actions.”
Former head men’s basketball coach Shawn Neary said the decision has an impact far beyond the athletics programs.
Without sports, what will happen to other aspects of campus life such as the dorms, cafeteria and classrooms? Neary asked. Will students and local residents who work there keep keep their jobs when the Pronghorn Center, dorms or cafeteria aren't used nearly as much?
“What they’re trying to do to us is going to take down Gillette College, period,” Neary said.
Some student-athletes has said they've already been contacted by other schools to play there.
Isaac Mushily, who was a guard and forward for the Pronghorns as a freshman in 2019-20, has received offers but decided to “wait-and-see.”
If the program in Gillette is reinstated somehow, “I’m definitely staying in Gillette,” he said.
Tariq Eisa played for the Pronghorns for two years and said moving to Gillette changed his life. He said he was an angry kid and filled with hate, but has become a better person since moving to Gillette.
Bell said it would cost about $532,000 to allow sports to come back in 2020-21.
Some have offered to donate toward that, including the Pronghorns booster club, which is willing to chip in all of its savings, about $180,000.
“I think that will be a good start as we figure out a way to get the community to back this,” Neary said.
Liz Lewis, former women’s basketball coach, said she's willing to work on a small budget to be able to keep sports at the school. She had only been the coach for one season, but finished as the No. 21 ranked junior college in the nation and expected to bring back a loaded squad next season.
Darla Cotton, Campbell County Parks and Recreation Information Technology specialist, suggested people travel to Sheridan College to attend Wednesday night’s college district board meeting at 6:30 p.m. in the Bruce Hoffman Golden Dome.
“If you guys don’t think that this college is not on the chopping block for the next round of cuts, you’re all crazy because that’s exactly where this is heading,” she said. “We have to do something now and make ourselves known on Wednesday, otherwise we’re not going to have a college next year. I guarantee it.”