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Campbell County Residents To Vote On Community College Independence

Gillette College sign on campus
Catherine Wheeler
Wyoming Public Radio

The ordeal started back in the summer of 2020, after the Northern Wyoming Community College District announced major budget cuts that were a result of the state's economic crisis and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

District President Walt Tribley said there have been attempts in Campbell County to separate from the community college district before, but this time was different. For many in Gillette, it started as a fight about the elimination of athletics programs.

"The first time it was very publicly and very clearly communicated [and] was in reaction to the cuts that were made by the district, in very, very challenging times," Tribley said.

After passing several hurdles since last summer, the community will decide with a vote this August: become an independent community college district or stay in their current situation.

The Northern Wyoming Community College District is made up of Sheridan College, Sheridan College in Johnson County and Gillette College.

Sheridan County is the taxing county for the district, meaning county-based businesses and residents pay the taxes that partially fund it. It also means the county gets full representation on the district's board of trustees. For many, that's the other major issue, including Mark Englert, who worked for the district for 33 years and is the former vice president of Gillette College.

"When you have an elected board of trustees making decisions, and they are connected to their community, all your decisions then are relative to the community's needs," Englert said.

With the control ultimately lying in Sheridan right now, Englert said it doesn't allow Gillette to be as flexible.

"It's incumbent upon that community college to be able to respond in a timely manner to those needs, whether it be full blown academic programs or a certificate program, or even select courses," he said. "And if you can't do that, if you don't have the ability to make those decisions that serve that local need, then fundamentally, you're not a true community college."

But to become independent, Gillette will have to vote to tax itself, possibly between two and four mills-a hard sell in Campbell County.

But Englert said it's a worthwhile investment.

"We acknowledge the cost, that it is a tax. It's a property tax, there's no getting around it," he said. "But for example, for a homeowner who has a $300,000 home, if the trustees opted to levy three mills, that is an $85.50 cent investment per year to support the college."

Campbell County State Rep. Bill Fortner begs to disagree.

"The reason being is, there's really simply nothing that we're going to gain out of it in Campbell County with the economy going backwards," he said.

Fortner said the added tax would be a burden for property owners and businesses, and it's not something the community should take on during this period of economic uncertainty.

"This is a tax that's a direct attack on our extraction industry, uranium, coal, oil and gas in Campbell County," he said. "Not only is that the food chain for Campbell County, it's the food chain for the rest of the state. The state depends on Campbell County to do good."

Fortner said in his opinion, the trustees in Sheridan and the district itself have done a good job. He's happy to continue having the neighboring county foot the bill.

But Englert said there's a value in retraining a local workforce and with the business leaders he's spoken to, they agree.

"They realize the value of a community college in making sure that you continue to have a well prepared workforce, even if the business has to change, even if they have to change the direction and look at different markets, you have to have something in place where you're not trying to attract workers from outside, but you can prepare them locally," he said.

But even if the county approves the tax, there's still a long way to go. It will take years for Gillette College to be fully accredited on its own and to separate itself completely from the district.

District President Walt Tribley said despite the financial impacts this could have, he hopes they are successful.

"Make no mistake that this college is where it is today, due to the industry, the hard work, the vision, the passion, the money of the folks in Campbell County, and very much so because boards of trustees have supported it, presidents have supported it, staff have supported every bit of that growth," Tribley said. "So I think that moving forward, I'd love to see people in Campbell County support an institution of higher education."

Tribley said if it does pass, the district will still be there for students and staff and the relationship won't disappear. And if it doesn't pass, he said there would be some issues, but ultimately things would work ok.

"On August 18, regardless of the vote, the students are enrolled in northern Wyoming community college classes. Our faculty are in place, our staff are in place, our administrators are in place. We're budgeted for the year. We're good to go this way or that way, you know, we're here for the education of our students," he said.

The Campbell County special election will be held on August 17, with early voting already underway. Along with voting on whether to establish a new community college district, residents will also be able to vote for the potential new district's board of trustees.

Catherine Wheeler comes to Wyoming from Kansas City, Missouri. She has worked at public media stations in Missouri and on the Vox podcast "Today, Explained." Catherine graduated from Fort Lewis College with a BA in English. She recently received her master in journalism from the University of Missouri. Catherine enjoys cooking, looming, reading and the outdoors.
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