Brigham Sorensen fell in love at Coconino Community College. Like many young adults, he was sorting out what he wanted to do in life, taking general college classes and sampling different areas of interest. But it was an EMT (Emergency Medical Technician) course that hooked him. From that point on, he’s been climbing the ladder of his firefighting career.
“I went on to Fire 1 and 2 and several other fire science classes after that. Absolutely loved it. Right after that, I got hired at Highlands Fire Department as a volunteer firefighter. When a position opened, I was the most qualified for the job.”
Sorenson began blazing his fire career path in 2008. Today, the 27-year-old is enthusiastically working his dream job and protecting the city in which he was raised. He credits Coconino Community College and his instructors for his success in education, his on-the-job training skills and the opportunity to learn and live in Flagstaff.
“What I value most is that the teachers who taught me my courses were actually firefighters from the local area and also taught at CCC. I learned how to do the job from guys who are already doing it. If they weren’t there, then I wouldn’t have a job right now here. I would have had to go elsewhere to get the education and experience to do what I do.”
Going elsewhere is a very real possibility for Flagstaff’s future firefighters, nurses and police officers. Career and technical training is one significant component of CCC. In fact, the college has produced 55 percent of the firefighters in the county; 42 percent of the registered nurses and paramedics; and 43 percent of the law enforcement officers. But like all programs at the 22-year-old college, this training is in jeopardy because of continuous budget cuts from the state coupled with the lowest property tax rate of all Arizona’s community colleges.
As CCC’s President Leah L. Bornstein, Ph.D., explains, CCC operates on funds from basically three sources: the state of Arizona, Coconino County property taxes, and tuition from its students. In the year 2000, 40 percent of CCC’s general fund was provided by state aid. Now, that percentage is down to 11 percent. Meanwhile, the college has raised tuition by 200 percent in the last 13 years. Today, full-time CCC students pay $2,700 per year, the highest tuition rate of all the community colleges in the state.
“We are at the tipping point,” said Bornstein. “Increasing tuition is not an option. We will be pricing many of our students right out of their education.”
To deal with dwindling state dollars, CCC has painfully tightened its financial belt in the last four years, cutting some $4 million in expenditures out of its $15-million budget. Programs have been reduced by 30 percent, classes by 20 percent and the CCC workforce by 15 percent.
“The college has done a yeoman’s job with restructuring and eliminating low value programs, laying off staff and getting hyper-efficient with expenditures,” said
Rich Bowen, president of the Economic Collaborative of Northern Arizona (ECoNA). “There’s a point where you’ve tapped all those efficiencies. You’re left with hard choices: change your mission, change who you are, or find more money.”
“Any time an organization is looking at changing its mission, it’s a crisis,” said Bornstein. “Our role in providing accessible and affordable education is at stake.”
Besides offering career and technical training, the college partners with businesses to develop the workforce and also prepares students for higher education at campuses in Flagstaff, Tuba City and Page. Earlier this year the college closed its Williams campus.
While CCC continues to struggle to meet the region’s growing educational needs on fewer dollars, an independent Citizens’ Review Panel, assembled to examine the college’s financial situation, is recommending CCC ask county residents for help.
“The Review Panel felt very strongly that the community college is a critical infrastructure component of our Northern Arizona economy on a lot of different levels,” said Bowen, a member of the panel. “With workforce training, it’s uniquely situated to provide sophisticated technical training that nobody else has the ability to do. It’s also so critical in its role of providing a place where many students with unique needs can plug in. Research shows that high school students who go on to earn an associate’s degree are likely to earn $800,000 more during their lifetime, and those with a bachelor’s degree can increase their income by $1.5 million. Higher education is such a game changer for so many people.”
Flagstaff High School junior Savannah Morrison says Coconino Community College is definitely a game changer for her future. “It’s a pretty sweet deal for me. My mother’s a teacher so there’s not a lot of money for college. But through the CAVIAT (Coconino Association for Vocations, Industry and Technology) program, you can earn close to two years of free college classes while still in high school. By the time I graduate, I will almost have an associate’s degree, plus I’ll have so many skills that I wouldn’t have had by doing college-level course work.”
The Citizens’ Review Panel has presented its findings to the CCC District Governing Board and board members are expected to make a decision at their June 25 retreat as to whether to have a property tax override election this fall.
“Coconino Community College has far outgrown the vision of the original folks who got it off the ground,” said Citizens’ Review Panel member Chris Bavasi. “The only way to continue the quality of CCC is to go to the voters. We have been blessed with having the lowest property tax in the state, but unfortunately because of that, we are faced with choices now that could significantly impact our local economy. To attract quality employers to the region, an educated workforce is certainly a factor in determining whether solid companies with high-paying jobs like W. L. Gore & Associates and Nestle Purina choose to operate here.”
An override election would raise an estimated $5.5 to $6.5 million for the college during the next seven years. To homeowners with an assessed property value of $200,000, the tax increase would be somewhere between $72 and $85 a year.
“We have to look at increasing our property taxes as an investment in Northern Arizona,” said Bavasi. “Coconino Community College improves our quality of life, employment opportunities, public safety, medical care and intellectual growth while ensuring a future for many of our young people who want to make a living and raise families in Northern Arizona.”
“I love my job,” said Sorenson from the Highlands Fire Department in Kachina Village. “I use what I learned – basic principles of firefighting and Emergency Medical Technician training – daily to make a difference in the community I love.” FBN