State lawmakers are again seriously debating whether to bring back a state agency to oversee Arizona’s community college districts that was dissolved five years ago as a bureaucratic waste of tax dollars.
Perhaps even worse, some supporters of this plan would like to use a state oversight board to hurt taxpayers and college students by stifling competition and limiting consumer choice.
In 2002, Arizona was building toward the worst budget crisis in state history and lawmakers were scrambling to deal with a shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars. Some lawmakers proposed saving money by eliminating state agencies that weren’t essential to public safety or welfare. The ideas ranged from an agency with a cabinet post in the governor’s administration — the Commerce Department — to the rather obscure areas such as the governor’s office on equal opportunity and the boxing commission.
But lawmakers could only bring themselves to close down a single agency with four employees and 15 governing members, the State Board of Directors for Community Colleges. This represented the tiniest possible step toward smaller government. But at least lawmakers recognized the state board was a duplicative level of bureaucracy that forced the state’s community colleges to produce lots of paperwork but provided almost no value for college students nor more protection for taxpayers.
That’s because community colleges in Arizona already have plenty of potential oversight — from campus presidents and their staffs to district administrators and their internal auditors to governing boards elected by local voters.
The immediate result of abolishing the state board was to free the college districts to be more innovative and nimble in adapting to changing markets and attracting students because they don’t have to ask for further permission before acting. For example, the Maricopa County Community College District was able to bring a $1 billion bond issue for building construction before local voters more quickly in 2004.
Some in the community college industry don’t like this freedom, especially those in rural areas who are afraid of competing with their counterparts in Maricopa and Pima counties. So there have been several attempts to bring back the state board and its power to reject changes in district programs.
The Tribune’s Ryan Gabrielson reported Thursday those efforts have gained new momentum in the Legislature this year after a series of media reports revealed problems in the Maricopa County district with fake class enrollments, missing funds, questionable travel costs and other scandals.
But these issues didn’t crop up because there was a lack of government bureaucrats to monitor what Maricopa’s colleges were up to. Those in charge just weren’t watching closely enough, as chancellor Rufus Glasper and the district board essentially admitted by firing two college presidents and then adopting more than 40 reforms to improve oversight and to instill better stewardship values among all 11,000 district employees. And county voters sent their own message by replacing one longtime board member at a regular election shortly after many of the scandals were reported by Gabrielson.
Resurrection of the state board would erase any modicum of progress Arizona might have made in whittling away unnecessary government. Lawmakers should see the wisdom of leaving this relic in the past.